Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spook Town (1944) / Scream of Fear (1961)

Elmer Clifton's 1944 PRC Western Spook Town opens with a foreward informing the viewer that the film is "Dedicated to the law officers of the Old West, who led the fight for law and order in the pioneer days of this country in 1880", and this rough, ragged cheapie is indeed some kind of beautiful poem to the mechanics of dutiful action in the Wild West. Ostensibly framed around a convoluted plot involving the recovery of a strongbox containing funds for the development of an irrigation program, Spook Town is at the same time so vastly stripped down and distilled to the pure essence of movement and gunfight that it often unfolds with the condensed logic of a dream. It is always fascinating to watch a nimble director maneuver within the constraints of the B movie, and while Clifton here doesn't quite subsume his budgetary restrictions into formal creativity (as an Ulmer would), he at least utilizes them as a guiding hand towards clarity and precision. The primary action consists of the passing around and chasing down of the valuable strongbox, but similar to the only other Clifton movie I've seen to date, 1949's The Judge, central action is routinely backgrounded in order to give precedence to effect and reaction, which means Clifton is markedly more interested in the pleasures and urgencies of horseback riding than he is in the destination; more interested in the crackle and somatics of a gunfight than he is in the motivations. These actions take on such ritualized splendor through their momentum and recurrence that the more confused I became at the unfolding plot (the abysmal condition of the audio and video from the copy I watched surely played a large part here), the more I was drawn into the experience. Clifton however is also generous enough to grant an unusual amount of freedom within his spare mise-en-scene, as characters - whether on horse or on feet - often determinedly move in and out of the frame at free will. His modest compositions are also ones of options, with decisions actively being made and carried out within them, and there is something gratifying and pure in such an approach. And then there is also the wonderfully granular voice and presence of Guy Wilkerson, here playing one of the Rangers named Panhandle, who utters the final, telling line of the movie, as the rather large group of survivors ride out of the ghost town together: "For a town where nobody lives, this has sure been a busy place." Nothing more than a troupe of Old West entertainers, moving on to the next performance, even if it's for only themselves.


While I am not quite inclined to agree with the many who feel the situation of modern American horror is in something resembling dire straits (Zombie, Aja, Romero, Reznick, Ti West are among a handful of names who still give me hope), it is nevertheless almost impossible to argue that a sizable bulk of the genre's films being released these days is dominated by and reliant on crude and exploitative techniques that have been slowly mastered over the past few decades. If I have to sit through one more picture where the single-minded goal is to make the audience jump three feet into the air every five minutes with something random flying into the screen accompanied by "The Chord", I think I may pull the hair out of my head.

It is in that frame of mind that dipping back in time and discovering for the first time a film like the remarkable, Hammer Studios produced Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961) provides for such a refreshing experience. Here we have a director who exercises an admirable amount of deliberation and puts complete trust in his images and atmospheres and ideas for effect, and one who takes a wholly organic approach towards startling his audience (the one "jump" moment in the film - and it's a biggie - contains only diegetic noise and involves an object that's been inanimately present in the composition the entire time). The plot concerns Susan Strasberg, a depressed cripple en route to visiting her long estranged father at his opulent French mansion. The film attaches itself to her subjectivity for a large portion of the running time, tracking her paranoia as she slowly becomes entangled in either a titanic psychological breakdown or an elaborate conspiracy to cover up her father's death, who has mysteriously vanished with no clear explanation it seems. Though the majority of the narrative unfolds within the quiet confines of the mansion, Holt is able to pack in a staggering amount of style, through both a bevy of expressive camera movements, as well as the creation of some chiaroscuro compositions that would have made Tourneur proud. The movie tips (most of) its hand with an entire act left to go, and at this point it rather fascinatingly morphs from a psychological horror piece into something resembling a Preminger noir, with everything taking a step back to calmly observe the reconfigured scheme of identification and slippery dynamics as they play themselves out to their natural, fateful ends. Also worth mentioning is that Scream of Fear contains perhaps the single most chilling shot of a dead body underwater this side of The Night of the Hunter. Brilliant film.

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