Monday, 17 May 2010

Monsters, Ghouls and Melancholy Misfits: Tim Burton's cinematic inspirations and influences

Bela Lugosi in 'The Raven'
To coincide with Tim Burton: The Exhibition, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image presents Monsters, Ghouls and Melancholy Misfits, a film season assembling a constellation of actors, genres and motifs that have informed, inspired and enriched director Tim Burton's wondrous stories and visual aesthetic.
 
The film season spans six decades; from German Expressionism to Grand Guignol, through stop-motion classics, '50s sci-fi, British Hammer and studio-era Hollywood horror films, Vincent Price and Ray Harryhausen.

As a boy growing up in the Hollywood suburb of Burbank in the 1960s Burton immersed himself in pop culture as a form of escapism. From horror to science fiction, via comics and film, the young Burton was drawn to all things scary and obscure. In a 1992 interview published in Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation (David Breskin, Faber & Faber) Burton said "Monster movies are my form of myth, of fairy tale. I linked those monsters, and Edgar Allan Poe, to direct feelings. I didn't read fairy tales, I watched them."

The films Burton enjoyed throughout his youth have common features; unsettling locations and vulnerable 'outsider' characters, often tackling dual-identity or deformity. These films share qualities with the films and artworks Burton went on to create, as we see through the exhibition and this film program.

It was up to ACMI Film Programmer Roberta Ciabarra to distil the mind of this creative genius and curate a program representing Burton's inspirations, influences and the films he enjoyed throughout his formative years.

As Roberta explains, "The season features films and genres that fascinated Burton growing up - films such as Universal's classic horror and monster films from the '30s - films that feature some of Burton's cinematic heroes (Vincent Price appears in two features adapted from stories by Edgar Allan Poe, a literary touchstone for Burton), films that influenced the development of Burton's own visual style (F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, Mario Bava's Black Sunday) and films that share some of Burton's key thematic preoccupations; films such as Freaks and The Elephant Man which both seek to affirm the humanity of marginalised characters; a point of identification with all of Burton's films and one with particular resonance in films such as Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish and Ed Wood."
 
The result is ten days of film; 13 features and two short films, both directed by Burton.

Mary Shelley's gothic horror novel Frankenstein spawned both James Whale's adaptation Frankenstein (1931) and Burton's short Frankenweenie (1984) which will screen side-by-side in this exploratory season. In the Universal Pictures' adaptation that set a new benchmark for the genre, Dr. Frankenstein completes his monster (Boris Karloff) by thieving a human brain, and subsequently loses control of his creation. Shelley's bewildered, misunderstood creature - drawn from her nineteenth century gothic horror novel - inspired Burton's live action short, Frankenweenie as well as the titular 'hero' in Edward Scissorhands (1990), a role imbued with surprisingly tender pathos by Johnny Depp. Frankenweenie is a live action short film in which an inventive ten year old, Victor, (Barret Oliver), takes a leaf out of Frankenstein's book and re-animates his dearly departed dog, Sparky. Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern co-star in this short which is slated to become a feature film in 2011.

For lovers of the living dead, there is also Terence Fisher's Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), the fifth in the British Hammer cycle of Frankenstein horror films and arguably the most faithful to Shelley's material. Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein is certifiably mad at this juncture and not above blackmail or murder to further his own ruthlessly single-minded ends, while the Baron's hapless Creature (Freddie Jones) is - atypically, for a Hammer production - sympathetically rendered as a bewildered, literate innocent who ultimately turns the tables on his creator/persecutor.

Italian horror maestro Mario Bava was a prodigiously talented all-rounder who early in his career distinguished himself as a cinematographer for Roberto Rossellini and Jacques Tourneur. Black Sunday (1960) sealed his directorial credentials and launched the career of cult 'Scream Queen' Barbara Steele. Shot by Bava in luminous black and white, Steele plays a 17th century Moldavian princess, condemned to death for witchcraft and vampirism, who bides her time until a chance resurrection unleashes her vengeful powers.

Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, Bava amps up the gothic quotient with gorgeously dreamy visuals and striking set pieces that evoke the mood of classic Universal Pictures horror films - all fodder for a young Tim Burton's febrile imagination. He told American Cinematographer in December 1999: "Black Sunday really stood out for me, because it had very lurid, vivid and stark images, which is what you want from a good horror movie...Digital technology certainly has a place in film-making, but when you're watching a movie like Black Sunday, you really feel as if you're there. When you combine the stagebound sets with the actors, their costumes, and everything else, you really feel as if you're within that particular world... That's the vibe we were trying to capture in Sleepy Hollow."

Bava's Baron Blood (1972) also screens. Mini-skirt sporting Elke Sommer is menaced by Orson Welles-regular Joseph Cotten (The Magnificent Ambersons), a four-centuries old sadistic nobleman bent on restoring his youth, in this gruesome, Grand Guignol gothic melodrama, shot in suitably atmospheric locations in the Austrian Alps.

F.W. Murnau's iconic German Expressionist classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) also screens. This adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1893 vampire novel - a highpoint in early German cinema - is distinguished by Max Schreck's magnificently ghoulish performance as the enigmatic Count Orlok. Made up to appear a rodent-like, sunken-eyed, spectral figure, Schreck's desiccated count rather more resembles a disinterred corpse than the well-groomed vampire of Stoker's original story and also distinctly lacks the romanticised veneer of Universal's later 1931 incarnation, starring a black-caped Bela Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi's, theatrical, Hungarian-accented Count Dracula created an enduring screen persona based on (but not slavishly faithful to) Stoker's literary vampire. The role reinvigorated Lugosi's career and ushered in a golden era of Hollywood monster films, for which Universal Pictures became famous. Similarly, the role of Count Dracula dominated and defined Lugosi's career in Hollywood and for the rest of his life; indeed, Lugosi was buried in the suit, cape and medal that typecast him - a detail Burton poignantly picked up on in his 1994 feature, Ed Wood, in which Martin Landau took the role of a Seniors Card-carrying Lugosi that was both unsentimental but also profoundly moving. Thus, no season unravelling Burton's inspirations would be complete without screening Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula (1931). Tod Browning took up directing duties, with German director of photography Karl Freund (who shot F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh in 1924 and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in 1927) contributing atmospherically effective cinematography despite modestly-budgeted resources.

Browning-directed cult film Freaks (1932) will open the season on Friday 9 July, alongwide Burton's short Frankenweenie. As a boy in the late nineteenth century, Browning witnessed first-hand the feelings of morbid fascination, fear and pity the 'sideshow freaks' of a travelling carnival inspired in their public. Decades later, he would populate his own (notorious, cult) film, in which a beautiful trapeze artist marries a dwarf but harbours duplicitous intentions, with characters who were as authentic as the 'freaks' he had befriended in his youth.

David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) is an extraordinarily moving drama about a hideously deformed yet disarmingly genteel man. Set in Victorian-era London, the film shares a stylistic interest in atmospheric (fog-bound) milieu and a central thematic (the plight of individuals marginalised by an uncaring or unseeing society) that likewise resonates throughout much of Tim Burton's oeuvre.

The season also features Don Chaffey's mythological fantasy classic Jason and the Argonauts (1963) with its stop-motion-animated skeletons, which provided a source of inspiration for a young Burton. In search of the mythical Golden Fleece, Jason and the crew of the Argo face such perils as the invincible colossus, Talos, bat-winged, bloodthirsty harpies, duelling skeletons and the seven-headed Hydra - all brought to vivid life by celebrated special effects master Ray Harryhausen, one of Burton's childhood heroes. Inspired by Harryhausen's genius, Burton directed The Killers' Bones (2006) video clip, animating the band as skeletons but also integrating clips of the skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts. Burton also drew inspiration from Harryhausen in creating the martians in his 1996 feature, Mars Attacks!. 

Edgar Allan Poe gets a Hollywood makeover in the classic Universal Pictures' horror film adaptation of The Raven (1935) by director Lew Landers, featuring Bela Lugosi as a brilliant but morbidly obsessive surgeon who doesn't take rejection well and Boris Karloff as an unwitting victim. Both The Raven and Poe's later The Pit and The Pendulum serve to inform the dark fantasies of Burton's seven-year old 'hero', Vincent Malloy, in Burton's short film, Vincent (1982), which will screen with both The Raven and The Tomb of Ligeia. Young Vincent - the tormented hero of our story - imagines a transformed suburban world worthy of Edgar Allan Poe in this stop-motion animated short narrated by Burton's childhood idol and muse, Vincent Price.

The Raven also borrows from another Poe masterpiece, The Pit and The Pendulum, the 1961 film adaptation which also screens. Director Roger Corman reunited with his House of Usher star Price for a second Poe adaptation that also featured horror film darling Barbara Steele (fresh from her success in Bava's Black Sunday). Price plays the son of an Inquisition executioner who lives in an isolated, sea-bound castle conveniently outfitted with a torture chamber - complete with iron maiden - in the basement. Ichabod Crane's feverish dreams in Sleepy Hollow, in which Johnny Depp's childhood character is reunited with his beautiful, tragic mother (played by Burton's then girlfriend, Lisa Marie) pay skilful and evocative homage to scenes of a childhood trauma Vincent Price's character relives in a horrifying flashback sequence in Corman's lush, extravagant film.

Corman's final - and, arguably, most accomplished - Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1965) saw the director expand his pictorial milieu by filming on location in the UK, preferring to shoot several thrilling sequences outdoors, instead of on sound stages. Vincent Price re-teams with the director in the role of a tormented widower whose embrace of new-found love in the comely form of the Lady Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd) antagonises the unquelled spirit of his dead, deep-in-denial wife (shades of Burton's The Corpse Bride), who promptly rematerialises in the form of a feral feline.

MGM's sci-fi cult classic Forbidden Planet (1956) is a reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest and features Walter Pidgeon, Ann Francis, Leslie Neilsen and Robby the Robot, remaining one of the most ambitious and best-loved of the genre. Its matte-painted sets and sci-fi 'hardware' may instantly date it, but it's just those qualities that held a young Burton spellbound, in a childhood spent, as the director himself confirmed in a 2001 interview for Premiere; "in suburban Burbank, finding solace in monster movies, Vincent Price, cheesy '50s sci-fi cinema and indulging [an] affinity for outsiders, oddballs and aliens."

Monsters, Ghouls & Melancholy Misfits will feature films that inspired the creative genius that is Tim Burton, from 9 to 18 July, as a valuable addendum to Tim Burton: The Exhibition at ACMI.

ACMI will also screen all fifteen of Tim Burton's feature films, plus selected highlights of his work as an animator and producer, in the film season titled Tim Burton Film Retrospective starting 25 June and running through to the last day of the exhibition on October 10.

 

Further information

Claire Butler
Communications Coordinator
[direct phone] 61 3 8663 2415 [fax] 61 3 8663 2498 [mobile] 0434 603 654
[email] claire.butler@acmi.net.au  
 
 
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