Monday, April 30, 2018

HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE


Once again I had the pleasure and privilege of appearing on the vastly entertaining and informative FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast, featuring the inimitable Bradley J Kornish and Dan Pullen. This time we discussed two films that are very dear to me, HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE, both of which are based on the book LES MAINS D’ORLAC by Maurice Renard.

I’ve already written a little about both of these films, but that was quite awhile ago. Re-watching them this past week for the podcast, I was struck by the fact that I’ve grown to appreciate these films even more, and for very different reasons than I have in past. At least on a conscious level. Over the last couple of years I’ve been going through some Dougie Cooper-level stuff and over the past six months or so I’ve been actively confronting these issues, and I think that my new outlook on these two films has been actively informed by my own personal journey. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown.

At heart, these movies about a hand transplant gone wrong are about the ways in which humans fail to connect, and how the need to express oneself is vital to their survival.

Also, a killer’s hands probably contain some vestige of their original owner’s homicidal spirit—so be careful whose limbs you have transplanted onto your body.

In HANDS OF ORLAC, Conrad Veidt gives a manic, exhausting performance as Paul Orlac (Stephen in Renard’s original book—I’m not sure why it was changed; MAD LOVE changes it back), a famed concert pianist whose hands are crushed in train derailment. The brilliant but bland surgeon Dr Serral transplants the hands of Vasseur, a man recently executed for committing a series of murders, onto Paul’s arms. Thanks to a highly effective plot to drive him insane and extort money, Paul comes to believe that his hands are possessed by the evil bloodlust that drove Vasseur to commit the crimes for which he was executed.



Prior to the train derailment, much is made of the importance of Paul’s hands. Very early in the film Yvonne is seen reading a letter from Paul, in which he states that his “hands will glide over your hair. I will feel your body beneath my hands.” Later, Yvonne pleads with Dr Serral to “save his hands,” and when Paul awakens after the procedure, his hands still covered in hand bandages (“handages”), Yvonne comments on his “beautiful, tender hands…”

All of this might seem like overkill, and maybe it is—but the fact is, hands are important. They’re specifically important to Paul because as a pianist it’s how he earns his living and how he expresses himself creatively. They’re also an important part of the way in which he and his wife connect with one another. Without the ability to connect with others, we miss out on crucial aspects of ourselves. It’s very difficult to be a wholehearted, satisfied person without connecting with others. When Paul, who has been looking forward to once again holding the love of his life in his arms, and getting back to sharing his musical gifts with the world, learns that the hands that are now on the ends of his arms once belonged to a man executed for committing murder, he understandably suffers a serious emotional break.



He decides that he won’t allow himself to use these new hands to touch anyone else. So, following this major medical trauma, he feels a need to compound his difficulty by walling himself off from humanity. This is on top of the fact that his new hands seem incapable of creating music anymore: In one particularly painful scene, Paul goes to the piano, caresses it. Fearfully, anxiously, a shell of what he once was, he attempts to play. His and Yvonne’s reactions are appalled at the result.

Paul’s struggle is dramatized in scenes that show him almost dancing, with the hands seeming to lead him. He tells the hands, “I feel like it comes from you… along the arms… until it reaches the soul… cold, terrible, relentless…” A knife found planted at his home as part of the blackmail/insanity plot is used to stab at the air—and leads to Paul considering using it to sever his new hands.



In this way Veidt and director Robert Wiene clearly establish the heartsickness, fear, and psychological difficulties that come from Paul’s situation. His new hands are the reasons why he can’t connect with others, either physically or through his Art. Now his blackmailers, Nera and Regine (Yvonne’s maid) really start to twist the knife, so to speak. Nera tells her: “Seduce his hands.”



This is a wildly specific and even humorous phrasing. But it shows that Nera has a deep understanding of the trauma that Paul is still dealing with. Paul has been denying himself connection with everyone, including his wife. Nera knows that Paul can’t keep that up forever without going completely insane, and that the opportunity for actual contact will be too much for him to resist. So he tells her to make that connection with Paul. When he touches her, the look on Paul’s face is one of pathetic, heartbreaking relief. Human beings are hardwired for connection. That connection is often sloppy and open to miscommunication even in the best circumstances.




Then Regine hits him with “Don’t touch me... Your hands hurt... Like the hands of a killer...” she is messing with him on a primal level. She lets him get a taste of connection that he hasn’t had since before the accident and then takes it away in a brutally emotionally violent way.

This leads to Paul visiting Dr Serral, and asking him to remove the hands. Dr Serral responds with stupid platitudes: “The head and the heart lead the body… and command the hands.” Well, Paul’s head is completely twisted up, and his heart is broken. His head and heart are useless in this case, and as Paul has already stated, he can feel the hands’s influence reaching into his soul.

Finally, Nera, pretending to be Vasseur, confronts Paul with his explicit blackmail demands. This leads to the climax of the film, in which we learn that Nera was the killer all along and that Vasseur was unjustly executed. Nera took a wax cast of Vasseur’s hands and created gloves which he used to leave Vasseur’s fingerprints at his crime scenes (slightly reminiscent of the third Fantomas novel, published in English as THE CORPSE WHO KILLS, in which Fantomas created gloves from the actual hands of a dead man). The hands, then, are clean—Paul kisses his hands and touches Yvonne. This ending, taken directly from the book, is an unmitigatedly happy one. It might seem a bit too “pat,” but it’s actually a relief that feels earned by Paul after that incredibly draining performance by Veidt. As the audience, I felt a lot of relief, too.

This is in stark contrast to the ending of MAD LOVE, which is almost unbearably bleak.

MAD LOVE follows the same story as HANDS OF ORLAC, but puts the focus squarely on Professor Gogol—a vast improvement over the bland Dr Serral. As inhabited by the great Peter Lorre, in probably his best performance and one of the greatest performances of all time, Gogol is a deeply disturbing, pathetic, sympathetic, appalling, evil, generous, complicated human being who is ultimately looking for human connections he’s unable to make due to his profound and irreparable flaws.

The director Karl Freund crafted the story of MAD LOVE with a writer called Guy Endore, author of a fantastic novel called THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS (which you should read!), to add an additional psychosexual element centered around Lorre’s Gogol. In this version of the story, Yvonne is an actress appearing at a Grand Guignol-type theater which Gogol visits every night to watch her suffer simulated tortures, which, given Gogol’s expression during one particularly grisly scene of torture, give him sexual satisfaction.


Or is it really sexual? Compare the look on Lorre's Gogol's face with that of Veidt's Orlac in the "seduce his hands" scene screenshotted above. I wonder if this is in fact Gogol feeling an EMOTIONAL connection with Yvonne. It's warped, I know--but Gogol is a warped character.

After a performance, Gogol visits Yvonne in her dressing room where he’s appalled to learn that she plans to journey with Stephen to England. Stephen’s playing can be heard on the radio in the background and when Yvonne asks Gogol, “How do you think he plays?” Gogol exposes his bitchy jealousy when he answers “Very modern music” in a condescending tone. (Gogol’s good taste in Art is shown throughout the film by his frequent quoting of poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde.) But his attitude changes to outright desperation when he tells her “I’ve come to depend on seeing you every night… I must see you again… I MUST!” She’s creeped out and looks for escape, but Gogol is invited to the afterparty, where the cast and crew present Yvonne with a guillotine-themed wedding cake. Yvonne offers “One kiss and one piece of cake for each…” Bad idea, as Gogol’s kiss is a clear violation. In a great piece of acting, Frances Drake’s Yvonne displays a range of emotions in just a few seconds, going from fearful, to horrified, to saddened, then to a sort of steely resignation to soldier on.



In these few early scenes Gogol’s and Yvonne’s characters and their dynamic are clearly established. Stephen’s character is established by the radio announcer who states that he is “an Artist with a great future,” and, significantly, it’s noted that Stephen isn’t just a pianist but also a composer. The next time we see Stephen he’s riding in the train, composing music. This is contrasted with the arrival of Rollo, convicted of killing his father with a knife and on his way to Paris for execution. Creativity is expression is life—Stephen is asserting his life by composing. This dichotomy is made explicit by the American journalist Reagan, who equates the train’s arrival to “A welcome and farewell party all in one.”

As if that wasn’t enough, later, after Stephen’s handages have been removed and his piano playing is shown to be less than satisfying, he plays a record of a past performance and tells Yvonne, “I used to play rather well. Wonderful invention, the phonograph… keeps a man alive long after he’s dead… These records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.” Yvonne responds by stating, “All of Stephen Orlac is left. His tenderness… his genius… and his arms. That hold me close…” Stephen is still alive, he can still touch Yvonne, but he can’t express himself creatively, which was a crucial part of his identity.

Note that by this point in the story in the previous film, Paul Orlac has been told that he has the hands of a killer on the ends of his arms. Stephen still believes that the hands he has are his own, reconstructed. So he has the luxury of being able to hold Yvonne close, at least. Even if he can’t play the piano anymore. But this is going to change in a truly devastating way.

Things take a really sinister turn when a creditor attempts to repossess Stephen’s piano. He throws a pen at him—the pen lodges in the wall just as the pen lodges in the wall of train car when Rollo throws it at the autograph-seeker. The symmetry of this scene is complete when Stephen again states, “This happens to be my pen, gentlemen…”



So it would appear that Stephen has some idea of that he’s got Rollo’s hands—but the audience hasn’t yet seen anything that lets us know for certain that he’s been told. When he confronts Gogol, Stephen tells him, “You and your black magic!… The hands feel for knives… They want to throw them… They want to kill!” Gogol then offers Stephen some bland platitudes, along the lines of Serral’s nonsense in HANDS OF ORLAC; but in this case, Gogol is aware he’s being banal.

When Yvonne confronts him later, Gogol seems to be talking about himself as much as Stephen: “The shock has affected his mind… Get away from him before he ruins your life…” He then delivers one of the great lines horror movie history: “I, a poor peasant, have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love? Don’t you understand? You must be mine!”


This outburst drains Gogol, who seems to go into a sort of catatonic state not unlike that of Paul Orlac in HANDS OF ORLAC. At this point Gogol’s mind completely snaps and he hatches his plan to murder Stephen’s stepfather and assume the identity of Rollo to drive Stephen insane. He tells Stephen that the hands he now possesses once belonged to Rollo, the knife throwing murderer.

At the climax, Stephen throws the knife used to murder his stepfather and with deadly accuracy he kills Gogol just before Gogol is able to kill Yvonne.

Stephen has the knife-throwing skills of Rollo. The hands do in fact want knives! They want to throw them! And they wanted to throw knives—and to kill—BEFORE Stephen knew they’d once belonged to Rollo. This means that the hands are in fact corrupt, and they’re corrupting Stephen. The hands are exerting a powerfully malevolent influence over him. And it’s at this point the film ends.

For crying out loud that is a desperately bleak ending!

Where does the story go from here? What kind of future do the Orlacs have to look forward to? The best they can hope for is that Stephen is able to channel his hands’ bloodlust in “positive” ways, in a sort of Dexter Morgan type future.

By making Yvonne an actress in a Grand Guignol-esque theater, Freund is able to do a PoMo style commentary on horror films and their fans (when Gogol is invited to the afterparty, much to Yvonne’s chagrin, he’s told, “Dr Gogol, you represent our public!”). But even more than that, by making Gogol the main character of the story, Stephen and his plight become a subtle commentary on Gogol and HIS plight.

Gogol is a deeply flawed person who commits bizarre and monstrous acts. But everything he does is in his fumbling and inappropriate attempts to connect with others. He’s unable to connect with others in ways that are “normal” and “healthy.” In many ways he’s a good person—he’s a gifted surgeon who uses his skills to help the poor. He specifically tells Reagan he doesn’t work for money, and we see this altruism in action, in his care for children in need of medical care. Despite his amazing surgical skill, he can’t make meaningful human connections. He’s almost like a character from a Todd Solondz film.

After the procedure Gogol has a conversation with Yvonne in which she is clearly the one with the power. He confesses his true feelings for her in a truly awkward and cringy way, asking for “pity for a man who has never known the love of a woman but has worshipped you…” Yvonne tells him that she knew of his feelings for her, and traded on them in order to get him to take on Stephen as a patient. She then delivers a painful emotional wallop: “Even if not for Stephen, there’s something about you that… frightens  me…”

Self-aware, pained Gogol replies, “You are cruel! But only to be kind…” He seems resigned to his loveless fate, but once he concocts his plan to drive Stephen insane and step into Yvonne’s life in a romantic way he delivers his “poor peasant” line. Once again, Yvonne is in control, and she pushes him away in disgust. Gogol, near catatonic, is physically exhausted. He’s made at least three overt attempts at reaching out to Yvonne, and she’s rebuffed him every time.

Clearly, Gogol needs help. Yvonne can’t help him, and she has her own horrifying difficulties to deal with. Gogol’s doomed—his fate is sealed by his lack of human connection. But the devastation that he’s caused will last long after the film’s end.

When I first saw these films, in particular MAD LOVE, I was mostly drawn to their strange psychology and exploration of medical anxiety. The idea of losing control of your own body is truly horrifying. Watching them now, however, I’m struck by the fact that they’re actually about far more universal human issues. The lack of meaningful relationships can lead to disastrous consequences. MAD LOVE and HANDS OF ORLAC are both powerful, affecting dramatizations of the importance of connection and self-expression.

My cartoon mashup of HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Jeff Rice and THE KOLCHAK PAPERS


Warning! While it’s impossible to “spoil” great art (we all know that Charles Darnay and Elizabeth Lavenza get married at the end of “Romeo and Juliet,” but that doesn’t stop us from continuing to listen to the opera), this post does contain very specific information regarding the endings of both THE NIGHT STALKER movie and the novel by Jeff Rice. 

Please note the placement of Jeff Rice's name in the upper left corner, hidden amongst all the ballyhoo about the TV movie, while Matheson's name is separate at the bottom. Hm.

A few days ago I had the pleasure of participating in the FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast with host Bradley Kornish and Dan Pullen, where the topic was the original Kolchak TV movie, THE NIGHT STALKER. Airing originally in January 1972, it was the highest-rated TV movie up to that point, earning a 54-share, meaning that 54% of all TVs turned on at the time were watching it. Seventy-five million people watched at least some of it. It was a rousing success that spawned a sequel movie and then a short-lived TV series that today maintains a loyal cult following and inspired just about every supernaturally themed TV show that’s appeared since.

In the opening credits of the THE NIGHT STALKER, we learn the screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, “from an unpublished story by Jeff Rice.” Matheson’s name was already legendary by that time. He was the writer of one of the most famous TWILIGHT ZONE episodes of all time, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which featured William Shatner as a panicked plane passenger who sees a hairy man on the wing. He was also the author of the well-regarded story collection SHOCK, and the novels THE SHRINKING MAN and I AM LEGEND, both of which had already served as the basis for very famous films.

But who was Jeff Rice? And why was this story “unpublished”? For that, matter, why mention that particular fact at all?

Jeff Rice was a writer for the Las Vegas Sun in the 1960s. He began writing a novel called THE KOLCHAK PAPERS in 1970, and apparently finished writing it on October 31 of that year. The book was a fictionalized account of Rice’s difficulties in getting stories published about actual corruption in the city—including stories about the mob, crooked and inept politicians and police, editors colluding to hide the truth, and so forth.

Rice submitted the manuscript to Matheson’s agent. Matheson’s agent then turned around and sold the movie rights to ABC, without informing Rice. By the time Rice learned what had happened, he was essentially locked into the deal. He’d sold his first—and as yet unpublished!—novel manuscript to the movies! He must have been excited yet frustrated by this turn of events. Can you imagine being in that situation, in that era? If he turned down the offer and fought to assert his intellectual property rights at that time, it might have caused the whole deal to collapse—and cause him to lose any future opportunities to have his work published. So he went along with that deal, hoping he might at least get a chance to adapt the screenplay.

But, no: Matheson’s agent had already negotiated for his client to write the screenplay as well.



Reading Rice’s original novel, it’s difficult not to (a) filter the story through the lens of Rice’s own experiences and (b) lament what might have been for Rice as a horror writer. THE KOLCHAK PAPERS is uneven and repetitive at times, but it also has a raw energy and verisimilitude that keeps you reading. It also has a really engaging title character, even if he’s not quite as powerful as the character inhabited by the great Darren McGavin.



The novel starts out with a letter written by Carl Kolchak to Jeff Rice. Kolchak, now reduced to “prostituting my God-given talents as a flack for actors,” has, between bouts of drunkenness, written and recorded a series of notes regarding “the greatest manhunt in the history of Las Vegas”:

“The only clues to the killer’s motive and his “weapon” were so unbelievable, that to this day the facts have been suppressed in a massive snow-job by mutual consent of the law enforcement agencies involved and the local press.”

Following this letter, and one page whose authorship is left unclear in the Pocket Books mass market paperback from 1974, there’s a Prologue written by Jeff Rice, in which he describes meeting Kolchak in Los Angeles. Rice writes: “He was seedy, gross, aggressive, slightly drunk, and a general hindrance to all of us.” He lived in a “shabby one-room apartment”. And he “later lost all his clients to alcoholic excess.” The Carl Kolchak that Rice meets in Hollywood is a desperate, lonely, sad man who has been mistreated by forces completely outside his control. All he wants is to find someone to tell his story. Kolchak’s opening letter signs off with the poignant line “I just can’t fight it alone, anymore.” He believes that Rice is the man to help him finally get his story out. Rice, after some convincing, agrees.

In his Prologue Rice tells us that he intended just to organize Kolchak’s rambling notes and tapes “into a compact, cohesive report by eliminating his endless digressions into unrelated subjects, his endless comments on fellow workers, and dissertations on various mundane aspects of Las Vegas not absolutely pertinent to the facts.” Rice ends up becoming almost Kolchakian himself, furthering his investigation and wondering if he’ll ever have another night of peaceful sleep himself.

Following the Prologue, Kolchak’s manuscript begins with the staccato, hardboiled voice that fans of the movies and TV series will recognize:

“On Saturday, April 25, at about 2:30 A.M., Cheryl Ann Hughes was tapping her foot angrily as she waited at the corner of Second and Fremont streets. She glanced repeatedly at her watch. The young man she was currently living with, Robert Lee Harmer, was supposed to be picking her up for ‘breakfast:’ and then a ride home. Harmer was nowhere in sight. He was at that moment quietly puffing away at a joint with some members of a local rock group, oblivious to the time.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: twenty-three, five feet five and a half inches tall, one hundred and eighteen shapely pounds, Clairol blond hair and light-brown eyes. Swing-shift change-girl at the classic Gold Dust Saloon, a gaudy western-styled casino built when Vegas was younger, smaller, and—some say—friendlier.

Cheryl Ann Hughes: Tired. Hungry. Disgusted at having waited twenty-five minutes for a ride, was now mad enough to walk the eight blocks to the small frame house she shared with Harmer just off the corner of Ninth and Bridger…”

In describing Cheryl Ann Hughes, her situation, the world of Las Vegas at night—Kolchak himself comes to vivid life. That is a distinctive voice. It’s the voice of a series character, feeling at once classically pulp and at the same time unique. This is the perfect character to lead us into this decadent and depraved world.

The voice is so good, in fact, that Matheson seems to have lifted quite a bit of it for his screenplay. (Is it possible Rice or perhaps someone else might have edited it to include Matheson’s voice over scripting?)

The Kolchak manuscript within the novels details the cynical but strangely hopeful journalist’s attempts to learn the truth behind the murders of at least five people between April 25 and May 15, 1970. Over the course of Kolchak’s investigation, he comes to believe that the culprit is a vampire. Kolchak believes that it’s important to let the public know what they’re potentially facing and just what exactly is stalking them. But he’s very much alone in that belief. At least where it counts. When he first tries to get the story told his way, the newspaper’s managing editor, Llewellyn Cairncross, says, “Bullshit! Kolchak, for years I have suspected you were mentally deranged and now I have confirmation of that suspicion. Why don’t you go to Alaska or Florida or anywhere and plague somebody else for a change?”

But the story is published, with heavy redactions. This earns the newspaper a call from the District Attorney, who attempts to intimidate Kolchak and the paper by suggesting that the Daily News should send Kolchak to study mentally ill patients “from personal experience—up in Sparks, Nevada, the Bedlam of the Golden West.”

Later, at an inquest where the coroner has suggested that the killer might actually be someone who has drunk the victims’ blood after biting them, Kolchak feels validated. But the District Attorney quashes the story:

“This ‘vampire’ stuff is to stay right in this room. Until we have the assailant in custody we say nothing about these girls being drained of blood. No more rumors. No reports in the papers,” he added, looking directly at me and ignoring my colleague from the opposition press. “The official opinion at this time is that the cause of death is ‘undetermined and under investigation.’ We don’t want to start a panic. It’s bad for police operations. It’s bad for the people. And it’s bad for business.”

The newspaper is all-too willing to agree with this official position, even going so far as to airbrush away the bite marks on the neck of one victim before publishing their photo. In between bouts of trying to get the story out, Kolchak gets drunk. It’s how he copes with the frustration and powerlessness he feels. There is a deep feeling of sadness that permeates the book. Kolchak continues on, despite one setback after another—somehow expecting he’ll finally win, and the story will be told.

Finally, the police and the local politicians seem to agree with Kolchak, and they take his advice to bring Crucifixes, holy water, and wooden stakes with them in their search for the vampire, Janos Skorzeny. Kolchak even accompanies the police when they find his home and stake it out. While in the movie Kolchak uses an informant (played by the great Elisha Cook, Jr no less!) to find Skorzeny’s home before the police, in the book, Kolchak is brought along by the police when they find Skorzeny’s home. Kolchak is essentially ordered by Detective Jenks to kill Skorzeny with a wooden stake, even as Skorzeny lies at their feet, melting from having holy water poured on him.

This makes the ending of the book even more powerful. In the film, of course, Kolchak takes the initiative himself and stakes Skorzeny. So, tortured as it might be, there’s a kind of a case to be made that what Kolchak did was “premeditated murder.” In the book, the police very deliberately instruct Kolchak to stake him. Then, while they don’t run Kolchak out of town that day, they do make it so toxic for him in Las Vegas that he’s forced to leave, under threat of a murder charge.



The book ends with an Appendix on Jack the Ripper.

Huh?

Rice tells us that Kolchak shared Rice’s interest in the Ripper murders, and had even intended on one day writing a book about them. (Another book from Rice that we’ll never get!) There are then about two pages of notes on the murders. Why were these pages included? I think there’s a clue to that in the final note from Rice which reads, in part:

“Perhaps, because of my association with Kolchak, and the experiences I had in Las Vegas, I may have become somewhat sensitive to the smell of a cover-up, but I theorize that the ‘Ripper’ was caught, and that he (or she) was someone very prominent, and that it was all hushed up, the killer being quietly ‘put away’ forever. —JR”

This is Rice letting us know that Kolchak’s experiences were very much based on Rice’s own. It’s a highly personal, idiosyncratic book. It’s a real shame that we didn’t get more from Rice, beyond his novelization of the second Kolchak movie. Whatever was the cause, Rice apparently couldn’t bring himself to write more with the character, or to write anymore fiction that he felt he could share.

The character has lived on, however. Speaking of which—the graphic novel I scripted, KOLCHAK: DAWN OF THE DEMONS, should be available shortly, after some lengthy and unexpected delays.