Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Holiday Guide to a Cinematic Shadow Pantheon (Part 1)

If you're looking for an alternative X-mas experience, to offset the perennial screenings of such classic films as A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, then I recommend cuddling up with a cup of Irish Hot Cocoa and watching some of the unjustifiably obscure X-mas themed films recommended by our knowledgeable staff here at the barbed-wired, high security compound.  We have chosen to call this series "A Holiday Guide to a Cinematic Shadow Pantheon."  In this inaugural installment we recommend a pair of peculiar Yuletide tales....

The Curse of the Cat People (1944).  This was the first film directed by Robert Wise, who would later direct such cryptoscatological classics as The Body Snatcher (1945), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Haunting (1963).  This is ostensibly a sequel to Jacques Tourneur's groundbreaking horror film, Cat People (1942); however, no knowledge of the previous film is required to appreciate the sublime strangeness of this metaphysical paean to the dream worlds of childhood. 

Not only is this one of the most unorthodox B-films produced by Val Lewton for RKO in the 1940s, it's also one of the most offbeat sequels ever filmed by a major Hollywood studio.  Its evocation of both the wonder and alienation of childhood is reminiscent of the haunting tales Ray Bradbury began to write at around this same time (see, for example, the tales in Bradbury's1947 collection, Dark Carnival).  Since Bradbury often cited Lewton's films as an influence, this is almost certainly not a coincidence.  In fact, Lewton's films had a tremendous impact on several major writers of dark fantasy, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison included.  Though many film scholars do not hold The Curse of the Cat People in the same high regard as some of Lewton's other masterpieces (e.g., the aforementioned Cat People as well as I Walked with a Zombie and Isle of the Dead), nonetheless a faithful coterie of Lewton aficionados maintain that this particular offering is among the most personal and profound of his darkly fantastic oeuvre.

Quentin Lawrence's Cash on Demand (1962), produced by Hammer Films in England, is a Yuletide suspense story about a Scrooge-like bank manager named Harry Fordyce (Peter Cushing) who, on Christmas Eve, is terrorized for precisely 84 minutes by a master thief and conman named Colonel Gore Hepburn (AndrĂ© Morell).  A noirish, mirror-world alternative to Dickens' most famous saccharine morality tale, A Christmas Carol, Lawrence's Cash on Demand will add a much-needed dose of anxiety to your stocking this merry X-mas season. 

It's interesting to note that Lawrence also directed the cryptoscatological classic, The Crawling Eye (1958), a UFO disclosure film in which a United Nations troubleshooter named Alan Brooks (Forrest Tucker) goes head-to-head (head-to-eye?) with a giant, telepathic, tentacled eyeball from another planet.  In his 1997 book, Hollywood Vs. the Aliens:  The Motion Picture Industry's Participation in UFO Disinformation, Bruce Rux insists that The Crawling Eye featured "accurate UFOlogical elements, most notably in the recurrent abduction/implant remote alien control and sabotage motif" (236).  Filmmakers who are drawn into this esoteric field, whether by chance or by choice, tend to end up making more than one film that could be considered cryptoscatological in nature, and Quentin Lawrence (like Robert Wise) is no exception

Stay tuned for Part 2 of "A Holiday Guide to a Cinematic Shadow Pantheon" in which our staff will recommend a special New Year's Eve cinematic experience....

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