Thursday, June 23, 2011

150 Days of Halloween: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Cremator

We are in the middle of a block of older, and largely foreign films now, which is exiting. Yesterday was The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, a 1933 black and white German film by the auteur Fritz Lang. Today's film was The Cremator, a 1969 Czechoslovakian film by Juraj Herz. Vastly different movies in style, tone, content, and direction.

Being from the mind of Fritz Lang, I don't need to tell you that The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was an exceptional film. Not much of a horror movie sadly, save for the creepy titular doctor who organizes a crime spree from a padded cell. A crime spree with no other purpose then to destabilize the government and create havoc and terror in the streets. Kind of like Tyler Durden's Project Chaos, but with a disregard for innocent lives.
Does Fritz Lang have any bad movies?
Despite it not being much of a traditional horror movie, it still has various elements of the genre. The mysterious and mad Dr. Mabuse for instance begins as a crazed man frantically scribbling criminal manifests in his cell. These plans slowly build a larger picture for what essentially amounts to a terrorist cell committed to creating terror for terrors sake. After his death, Mabuse then returns as a ghastly apparition to oversee his plans, his visage is transparent with massive unblinking eyes and a partially visible brain. He would later possess his caretaker and admirer at the asylum, and use his body to personally handle aspects of his plan to destabilize the nation.

Besides the doctor and his ability to drive those who hamper his plans mad with fear, the movie plays mostly like a mystery and a crime thriller. You have gangsters committing robberies and murders, the police working to unravel the mystery and holding gunfights with the gangsters, and the obligatory gangster who has second thoughts and becomes the hero. Its not Lang's best work, but its still a beautiful movie and its a joy to watch. For a better thriller by Lang, you can't do any better then M, which is a brilliant movie.
May not be much horror in the movie, but this certainly counts.
This was a short review, but so were its Halloween appropriate elements. Whatever list I read that listed this as a horror movie was very much mistaken, but I'm still glad I can say I saw it now. I'll be more careful about reading up just a bit more on these before watching them, to weed out anymore non-horror surprises. The bottom line is The Testament of Dr. Mabuse isn't a horror movie, but its still a damn good movie. The special effects are stellar for a 1930's movie as well, Mabuse is a creepy sight as he haunts his plans for ruin, and Lang insisted on using real weapons and explosions through the production, which really shows.

The Cremator is also not a 100% horror movie, but it certainly is creepy and strange. It follows a man who works for a crematorium, and that work borders on obsession. Through the entire movie the man dreamily muses over the nature of death and life, and the freeing nature of burning a body. He monologues through scene transitions, starting a conversation at a brothel and finishing the same line to his wife. This creates an incredibly surreal state through the film, with the main character being the one constant feature as he drifts through the movie.
Morbid, funny, and super weird.
Around him, Germany is closing in the the Czech borders, and loyalties are being drawn. At first he resists the transition, valuing his friendships and his family more then being a member of the Nazi party. Soon that begins to change, as he falls more and more deeply into his warped interpretation of the Tibetan philosophy of reincarnation. As he sees the German influence grow, his desire changes from protecting those around him, to saving them. Saving them, of course, means killing and burning them to spare them the suffering to come.

So, with the same dream like motions he has always had through the film, he begins to kill off his family to save them. He sells out the other workers at the crematorium, his temple of death, to keep it pure and unspoiled. Soon he is having vivid hallucinations of being the reincarnation of Buddha, which coincide nicely with the new job the Reich have for him. They need a party member who knows a thing or two about burning bodies, someone to lead a project to build massive crematorium furnaces. He joyfully envisions a massive hall of fire, where bodies stream in one end and ashes out the other, freed souls pouring out the chimneys all the while. He wants to save everyone in the world.
"My Father isn't insane and evil... right?"
Its a dark movie, I mean did you read that last part? The man goes on to build the furnaces that millions would die in during the war that follows! Despite that dark subject matter, its played perfectly straight. The score is beautiful classical music, the same that plays over the crematorium speakers. Our leading man smiles constantly and is always eager to lay a hand on whoever hes talking to. He never comes across as a killer, and believes everything he is doing is for the best. Its an incredibly black and incredibly dry comedy. The deaths don't happen until the very end of the movie, after he is beyond lost in his own unstable mind, but the menace pours off him long before that.

With his hand constantly touching the people around him, his endless smile and need to constantly fix his hair, the man is just creepy the whole time. His family is stone silent for near the entire movie to really contrast with his nonstop talking about death, beauty, and the nature of the soul. His obsession with death, and his belief that it is a freedom from suffering, is a constant subject for the man, and it influences everything he does. The entire experience is simply surreal.
"Think I'll save my family suffering at the hands of the Nazi's by brutally killing them one by one."
You won't be terrified by this movie, but you may be unsettled by it. Its a window into a warped mans mind, one who believes that death is mans only salvation. As viewers we are aware of the horrible acts that will follow the Nazi parties rise to power, a knowledge that colors the entire experience in a very dark light. If you want a strange experience, then give this movie a go. I'm still not sure what I fully think of the whole thing.

Tomorrow continues our trend of older, foreign, not quite straight horror movies with The Phantom Carriage. Its a 1921 Swedish romantic horror movie. Romance horror is a fairly uncommon sub-genre, so it should be interesting to say the least. To see past reviews and future movies, check out the full 150 Days of Halloween schedule.


  1. Thanks for the review. I'm actually looking forward to the review on June 30.

  2. OH, I love those old posters.

  3. Good review, will check it out.