Friday, April 18, 2014

Terror is a Man (Gerardo De Leon, 1959)

(On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's ongoing Centennial Celebration, The Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), in cooperation with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) screened Terror is a Man at the Tanghalang Manuel Conde at CCP, April 12, at 4 pm. 

The film is available on Amazon and Netflix, respectively)

The Island of Dr. De Leon

Let's get expectations out of the way right now: Gerardo de Leon's Terror is a Man--about a scientist (Dr. Charles Girard) who surgically transforms animals (well, one animal; the production budget presumably couldn't afford any more) into human beings--isn't very frightening. Oh, some extremely sensitive adults and a handful of impressionable kids might have been swept away back in 1964 when Hemisphere Films reissued it under the less evocative title Blood Creature (it was a commercial failure when first released as a Lynn-Romero production back in 1959--an account nicely outlined in Scott Ashlin's horror blog 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting), but there isn't much gore compared with, say, the shocking bright blood of the Hammer films. The horror here recalls rather the Universal classics of the '30s: Todd Browning's Dracula, or James Whale's Frankenstein films or The Invisible Man, films that favor suggestion over splatter, their most distinctive attribute an atmosphere of lyrical dread. 

On the surface a no-budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau with a surprisingly literate screenplay from Paul Harber (whose career included only two more--one for an Eddie Romero kidnap drama, the other for an episode of Hawaii Five-O--plus a lifetime of television acting), the film could be a fascinating companion piece alongside Erle C. Kenton's classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Where the earlier version had a more emphatic tone--lush oversized sets evoking Moreau's jungle to great (if expensive) effect, Moreau himself played with half-sane intensity by the inimitable Charles Laughton--De Leon's adaptation is set in the languor of the real tropics (shot, if IMDb is to be trusted, in Corregidor Island, off the coast of Cavite), his Moreau (played with a lightly ambisexual note by Francis Lederer), a decidedly more subdued figure. 

It's instructive I think to compare the way Moreau explains his methods to Pendrick (the novel's protagonist/narrator) to the way Laughton's Moreau explains to the '32 Pendrick to the way Girard explains to our film's Pendrick figure, William Fitzgerald (a stolid and rather bland Richard Derr). Wells' Moreau goes to some lengths to point out historical parallels to his work--the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition; the "mediaeval practitioners who made dwarfs and beggar-cripples" described by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs; the Siamese Twins (a covert operation, he claims). Along the way Moreau's brutally frank language suggests a man so monomaniacally devoted to his field of study you daren't question his motives (he devoted his whole life's energy to it, so he must be right). Laughton's Moreau updates his methods to include "plastic surgery, blood transfusions, gland extracts, ray baths" (Ray baths? Similar to tanning beds, only more radioactive?); to Moreau's monomania he adds a winking smirk (isn't this amusing? Aren't you entertained by all the nonsense?).

De Leon dispenses with the horrorshow, the electric moment (in Wells' novel) when Moreau drives a penknife into his leg, the even more vivid moment when onscreen Moreau presents one of his subjects on an operating table, howling in agony and terror. Girard and Fitzgerald instead have a discussion in the office, and Girard in the manner of a dull lecturer explains how he worked up from "skin and bone grafts" to "alteration of major organs." And as medical science has advanced since the '30s (having in turn advanced from the time of the novel's writing) he points out that "the real difference is in the brain," and proposes a chemical (taken from gland extracts, of course) that can "bring about an alternation of the individual cells, cell division and cell growth." Girard's methods seem more recognizably like our own partly because the science isn't so very far from our own, partly because De Leon's MD training helps ensure authenticity (you see it in the handwashing, the surgical instruments, the working autoclave in one corner), but also partly because Girard seems so calmly reasonable (where Wells' was insanely focused), so serious (where Laughton's was playfully coy) that we're halfway sold by his earnestness. This isn't Moreau the madman we're faced with but Moreau the progressive intellectual, the dedicated humanitarian, who can't think of one reason why he shouldn't be doing what he's doing--one reason why what he's doing is wrong. 

(A sidenote: Francis Lederer (Girard) who changed his name from the more German Franz Lederer (he was in Pabst's great '29 film Pandora's Box) was actually born Frantisek Lederer in Prague, the birthplace of the Golem and the word "robot" (from Karel Capek's classic play R.U.R.), and a major center of Czech puppetry--appropriate, considering Lederer plays yet another manipulative fabricator of artificial beings)

That's script and man, in a way more disturbing than the figure found in either novel or classic film because he's more persuasive--invincible, almost--in his solemn conviction. 

Then there's De Leon's camera, which in sequence after wordless sequence undermines Girard's words with quiet effectiveness. 

The first hunting sequence, for example, early in the film--the camera in a parody of the famous shot in Murnau's Sunrise pushes through leaves and branches to peer at a sleeping village. A native sits by a fire, watchful--he senses something lurking out there, isn't sure what. Cut to a shot of the camera approaching the man's back, as we belatedly realize: this the creature's point of view; growls and cries and sudden lunge, the actual death elided over with cuts not unlike the sudden transitions found in dreams. Cut to a wide shot of the entire village, to the sound of screams as the bodies are found, and the camera in a perverse inversion of Murnau (and anticipating Hitchcock's retreating shot in Frenzy by some thirteen years) pulls back into the surrounding jungle.

Then there's the creature itself, hidden not just by camera angles or deep shadows, but by layer after layer of surgical bandages. De Leon the MD probably asked why the creatures in Kenton's and James Whale's films don't spend more time under wraps--Whale's is studded with long stitches that don't bleed out, the stitching never once tearing no matter how violently it moves. A practical question, but looking at the creature, at the tear-brimmed eyes peering out from the reeking gauze, and all questions of plausibility fall away. This is a creature in agony, capable of doing anything and everything just to make the suffering stop. 

Unmentioned yet plain as bandages is the subtext of racism: Girard is the imperialist white man attempting to remake the Malay 'beast' into a civilized being (the story is set in a South Pacific island named La Ysla de Sangre (Blood Island)). Seated at a table and surrounded by Malay servants (one boy waves flies away with a whisk on a pole), having just been served a presumably Western meal, Girard's wife Frances (the well-endowed Greta Thyssen) gratefully toasts their guest for reminding them they "can still be civilized on occasion." She adds that she's "forgotten we have good china or silver, or the manners to use them." Girard's native-born assistant Walter (a sensually sinister Oskar Kesse) mutters the hope that he can get "that black devil back where he belongs"--presumably strapped to an operating table, shrieking (the sharp ear might catch the pronoun he used, an implicit admission that the creature is an equal). Girard contemptuously dismisses the natives on the island as "superstitious" for leaving just because an 'animal' was on the loose (though to his credit he thinks New Yorkers would probably act the same way). With every sneer and suggested condescension we Filipinos can't help but bristle; with every unthinking line of dialogue the Western actors affirm their superiority over the natives (us) and over the creature himself, coded to be the most native inhabitant of all (a supernative, if you like).

Then there's fraternal hatred: the creature kills several of the natives, the rest flee in fear; when it--he--encounters Frances, he spares her. Why? A Filipino's immediate unthinking (kneejerk) response: "oho, he likes white meat." Doesn't matter if actress Lilia Duran, who plays one of the victims, is a fresh-faced beauty--the fact that Thyssen is white (and top-heavy) trumps that. One of the uglier subtexts of the '33 Kong (which none of the remakes managed to mitigate--and which in fact is exacerbated in the Jackson version) is that Kong clearly prefers the white blonde--the first he's ever seen--over any number of black women offered (the latter he kills; the former he takes with him to Skull Mountain, presumably for an evening of date rape). De Leon's creature seems to unthinkingly follow this pattern--

--only he knows her; she took care of him over two years and countless surgical procedures. Where Girard would often inflict pain, she would often take it away. Where nearly everyone  in the island (natives included) regard him as some kind of stalking evil, she doesn't. She fears him but doesn't hate him--if anything, she pities him. Frances is both Girard's wife and surgical nurse, and nurses often represent compassion, mercy, a surcease of pain--and the creature recognizes that. Racist? Perhaps not. 

Final bit of business (skip this paragraph if you intend to watch the film!): Harber has Fitzgerald say to Frances: "I want to help you;" later Walter says the same thing, then attempts to rape her (Fitzgerald at one point finds bruises on Lilia Duran's arm--if we go by De Leon's lexicon, Walter is the pervert found in many of De Leon's films who arrives at sexual gratification through sadism). At a certain point the word "help" acquires a sarcastically obscene connotation, as she turns down aid of all kinds from males of all sides. When she finally ends up in a beach watching the dying creature float away in a rowboat, she casually remarks: "he wanted to help me." All sarcasm is gone from her voice: instead there's a bizarre yet poignant longing--as if she recognized the genuine nature of the 'help' the creature offered, a once-in-a-lifetime offer that she was very possibly a fool to reject.  

First published in Businessworld, 4.11.14

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