The Strange Case of Dr. Pretentious and Mr. Clown

I’ve always loved Halloween.  It’s one of the few holidays that is fun and festive but requires no travel and only nominal shopping.  When it’s done right, it’s a wonderful excuse to dress up, eat bad food, and just play.  And for many of us, a big part of that “play” is watching horror movies.

But what do you do when you’ve run out?  Granted, you’re never going to totally run out of a popular genre like horror—not so long as you’re willing to lower your standards—but if you’re really looking for good ones, the kind that stay with you and change your perception of the world, then “running out” becomes a real possibility.

What are you supposed to do when you’ve seen the silent classics like Nosferatu, gone through the Universal monster cycle and most of the Hammer remakes, watched the Vincent Price adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, and exhausted the list of really terrifying films like Psycho, The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Halloween, and The Shining?  What’s left?

Well in my case, it means you look for curiosity items—the kinds of movies that you choose for reasons other than the viewing experience.  This year, I knew that whatever Halloween movies I chose were going to be very self-conscious selections.  What I couldn’t decide was whether to go for something classy and distinguished or to try to find something that was just goofy and fun.

So I opted for both.

The classy side of me chose The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, a 55-year-old French TV movie directed by the great Jean Renoir, son of the famed Impressionist painter.  It’s a fairly obscure film from late in Renoir’s career, a modernized adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it stars Jean-Louis Barrault, a former mime and legendary stage actor from the Comédie-Française.

Now, you can call me pretentious— [Drowned out with howls of “Pretentious!”]

Okay, I guess I deserve that.  The fact is, if you’re trying to be a goody-goody, you’d be hard pressed to find a more souped-up one-a-day multivitamin than this one.  It’s old, French, literary, and it stars a mime.  If that sounds like your idea of a good time, then it’s a pretty good bet that Charlie Brown won’t be the only one not invited to your neighborhood’s Halloween party.

But the movie is actually quite fascinating.  Technically, it wasn’t a TV movie in France because it was shown in theaters, but it’s shot in the same style as a TV production and the opening frame sequence even shows Renoir, himself, arriving at a television studio and then introducing the picture as part of a broadcast.  It’s surprisingly close to the original story by Robert Louis Stevenson—especially considering that it’s modernized and the original Stevenson story is so deeply connected to the Victorian era.  But Renoir does a good job of maintaining the spirit of the original.

Part of that spirit comes from the opening frame story.  Stevenson’s novella, much like the other two 19th Century horror masterpieces, Frankenstein and Dracula, uses characters’ testimonies and official documents to help ground the fantastic elements of the story in the banalities of the real world.  They serve as a form of verification—the 19th Century’s version of the blue checkmark on Twitter, and Renoir’s decision to present his movie as a film within a film dovetails nicely with the original source.

And Barrault really is extraordinary in the dual role of Doctor Cordelier and “Mr. Opale.”  His Doctor is a little flat and stiff, but his “Mr. Opale” is mesmerizing.  He’s made up to look both younger and thinner than Cordelier, wearing the older man’s oversized suit coat.  His every movement is punctuated with nervous tics and jerks, and he bounces on the balls of his feet like a dancer ready to spring to life at the first hint of a musical note.  In fact, he carries so much coiled up energy inside him that he reminded me of a young Al Pacino.

Yet, there’s little about it that is realistic.  The spasms and jerks are clearly artifice, and the rest of his movements—little things like closing a door with his foot—are elegantly choreographed.  But his movements are beautifully monstrous—especially in one scene where he sidles up next to a man on crutches.  For several steps, Barrault keeps pace with the man, matching him stride by stride, before he sadistically kicks away both crutches.  Of all the Mr. Hydes I’ve seen—John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Michael Caine, John Malkovich—Barrault’s is easily the best.

But as a horror movie, almost everything about Doctor Cordelier is wrong.  Renoir, who is best remembered for Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game, seems ill suited to the genre, and the decision to make the film like a TV production means that each scene is heavily lit for multiple cameras.  It’s hard to generate a creepy atmosphere in daylight scenes shot on suburban sidewalks or in modern office buildings that are lit like the Ricardos’ apartment in I Love Lucy.

Nevertheless, there’s still something compelling about watching a great artist trying to work in a popular genre—even if the results are occasionally tone deaf.  As Cordelier’s friends gather angrily outside his laboratory near the end of the film, one of them, the groundskeeper, carries a shovel.  I kept thinking—Couldn’t it be a pitchfork? Or at least a torch?

Just as Cordelier finds himself divided between two opposite personalities, I found myself wanting to watch two entirely different types of movies.  So as a counterbalance to the Renoir film, I decided to watch a couple of horror-comedies.  The Ghost Breakers stars Bob Hope as a reporter who is mistakenly accused of killing a gangster and winds up stowing away with Paulette Goddard on a ship bound for a mysterious island.  Once they arrive, they encounter a haunted house, ghosts, zombies, and old-fashioned crooks.

When I was a kid, Bob Hope was the epitome of unfunny, delivering canned monologues and acting in lazily-written comedy sketches.  Only years later, after reading an interview where Woody Allen talked about his influence, did I finally begin to appreciate some of his movies—particularly the smart and innovative Road comedies with Bing Crosby.  The Ghost Breakers features some clever one-liners and some creepy comic atmosphere for the last half-hour, but it takes far too long to reach the haunted island.  And Hope’s cowardly character is much braver than you might expect—more Freddy than Shaggy.

But the biggest weakness of The Ghost Breakers is the badly-dated race humor.  Hope’s valet, played by the African-American actor, Willie Best, supplies most of the cowardly laughs in the movie, and almost every time he appears on screen, Hope comes up with a supposedly witty comment that uses Best’s race as the punchline.  The persistence of the racism makes it virtually impossible to lose oneself in the movie.

Even though The Ghost Breakers tends to be the better-regarded film, I enjoyed the remake, Scared Stiff, far more.  Made only 13 years later as a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle, the movie retains the plot and much of the dialogue from the original, though it adds enough of a subplot to turn it into a typical Martin and Lewis outing.  Because Jerry plays the valet role, Scared Stiff contains none of the racism of its predecessor, and since George Marshall directed his own remake, the horror scenes are shot in an almost identical style.

Scared Stiff also includes a musical number where Jerry lip-syncs a Carmen Miranda number in drag.  And if you can’t find that funny then … well, there’s always the French mime.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


1 Comment

  1. Caio Marinho says:

    There’s a great atmospheric swedish vampire movie called “Let the Right One In”.

    It’s from 2008, so it’s not VERY pretentious.

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