Friday, July 10, 2015


MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2, 3) *poor*


My formulation for the trope I call the "phantasmal figuration" is one of my most elastic. Most frequently on this blog, it connotes the act of some character in the story who performs a figuration --i.e., "the act or process of creating or providing a figure"-- that acts phantom-like in some way, like a ghost or even a madman (1939's CAT AND THE CANARY being an example of the latter). Another type of "phantasmal figure" can be an apparition that seems supernatural though its provenance is uncertain, as with the ghost of Hamlet's father and even an improbable version of Excalibur in KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN. Additionally, there are times when the "figure" that is being created isn't an entity separate from the viewpoint character. In 1964's THE BLACK TORMENT, a clever conspirator seeks to convince viewpoint character Fordyke that he's become a madman who goes around killing women-- when in fact the murders are committed by Fordyke's twin. Thus the deceptive image of "Fordyke the killer" is the phantasmal figuration in the story, in contrast to the one in CAT AND THE CANARY, where the conspirator seeks to cover his own actions by convincing witnesses that that there's a mental patient on the loose killing people.

Robert Aldrich's HUSH, HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is at once an attempt to "gaslight" a person with the appearance of ghostly figures, and to play off that character's reputation for potential madness, For many years Charlotte (Bette Davis) has lived a reclusive life in her Southern mansion, because long ago she was implicated in the unsolved murder of her lover, a married man. Nothing was ever proved against Charlotte, but she's been nursing her trauma for years, until the government chooses to condemn her property in order to build a new highway on the land. Charlotte appeals for legal help from her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland), but Miriam has plans of her own. Soon weird occurrences are taking place at the mansion, and Charlotte finally sees ghostly figures-- all with the idea of driving her mad for real. So in a sense, even though Miriam and her co-conspirator are conjuring up phony phantoms for Charlotte's benefit, they're also hyping up the "phantasm" of Charlotte's mad image for the benefit of the local public. Happily, Charlotte finds out the plot, and the plotters find out what madness really means.

CHARLOTTE  was Aldrich's follow-up to 1962's WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, his earlier success with casting two aged actresses as "horror hags." I for one prefer CHARLOTTE to BABY JANE, though the psychological complexes of Charlotte don't run very deep, and I sometimes felt I was watching a dumbed-down imitation of Tennessee Williams. But then, CHARLOTTE is predominantly an actor's movie, and does quite well in that regard.

A somewhat different strategy is pursued against Lana Turner in 1969's THE BIG CUBE, a thriller which evokes in its victim not the fear of ghosts but the spectre of guilt. Successful middle-aged stage actress Adriana (Turner) marries a wealthy tycoon with an adult daughter, Lisa (Karin Mossberg). Lisa plainly resents having to relate to Adriana as a new mother, but she can do nothing about the situation save complain to her boyfriend Johnny (George Chakiris), a medical student with a penchant for partying with "the Big Cube" of the title-- that is, LSD.

A boating accident befalls Adriana and her husband, and only Adriana survives. Once the tycoon's will has been read-- stipulating that Lisa only gets her inheritance when she turns 25, and that Adriana can block Lisa's marriage up to a point-- CUBE doesn't waste any time making the audience wonder who's dosing Adriana now. Though Adriana doesn't suffer from a long-time trauma like the protagonist of CHARLOTTE, Lisa and Johnny are able to add guilt-trips to the actress' LSD-trips. Lisa just wants Adriana committed to the nuthouse, but Johnny wants her dead and gone.

BIG CUBE is an editing mess; it seems to miss whole scenes of establishing action. All of the characters are flat and predictable, and the resolution is frankly unbelievable. The only enjoyable aspect of the film are the colorful acid-trips, which serve the purpose of unleashing Adriana's inner demons. I don't consider the crazed sights of every acid-trip to conform to the uncanny version of the "delirious dreams" trope, but in this case, the association of Adriana's dope-frenzies with a plot to drive her mad pushes the whole film into metaphenomenal territory.

Jumping back about twenty years, WEIRD WOMAN may offer the most "insubstantial" version of a "phantasmal figuration" in all media. This 1944 film adapted a few elements from Fritz Leiber's overtly marvelous novel CONJURE WIFE and turned them into a low-energy, generally predictable uncanny thriller for Universal's "Inner Sanctum" series.

Norman Reed (Lon Chaney Jr.) makes his living as a professor at a small American college. Reed, who's established a measure of fame from writing a book debunking superstitions, has recently married Paula (Anne Gwynne), a Caucasian woman raised in the cultural tradition of a South Seas island. To Reed's surprise, Paula is not only strongly superstitious, she secretly invokes native magic to cast protective spells over him, and to protect him from hostile influences on campus. Reed remonstrates with Paula, irate that she should resort to the very superstitions he's railed against, and he destroys her native charms.  And suddenly, everything in Reed's life that can go wrong, does go wrong.

As anyone should expect, given the spoiler-heavy theme I've been exploring here, there's a conspirator behind Reed's string of ill fortune, rather than the actual magical threats seen in the Leiber novel. The film's strongest moments occur when Reed seems to be succumbing to a superstitious belief in bad luck as his life gets increasingly messed-up. Is Paula right that some member of the college faculty is a witch who's cursing him? But no, there's no real witch; just a bitchy conspirator who's gone through a lot of trouble to wreck the professor's career. What I find most interesting about this thriller's plot is that the schemer isn't trying to convince anyone of the existence of a witch or ghost, or even trying to unleash any demons in Reed's own mind. In essence, the "phantasmal figuration" here is the very idea of bad luck itself.

Given that WEIRD WOMAN shares none of CONJURE WIFE's thematic preoccupations, it wouldn't be fair to rag on the film for being untrue to its source material. But there is one amusing point of comparison. In the novel, all of the witch-women opposing the professor-hero are middle-aged women, and only his witch-wife is a young woman. Here, with one exception all of the women involved in Norman Reed's life are on the young side, not to mention being about ten years younger than Lon Chaney Jr.

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