January 30, 2020

Dark Shadows over Loon Lake

Poster - Loon Lake (2019)
Now Playing: Loon Lake (2019)

Pros: Cleverly presents the legend of the Loon Lake witch in a layered way with multiple perspectives; Wisely avoids tired old jump scares for the most part.
Cons: Focuses a little too much on the witch’s 19th century backstory at the expense of present day scares.

Contemporary horror films are a bit like TV reality shows. From the comfort of your couch or theater seat, you can sit in contemptuous judgement of the boneheaded choices the characters/contestants make, secure in the knowledge that you would never be so clueless.

Over the years, the checklist of things horror movie victims should never do is almost as long as the roster of zombies, serial killers, and assorted monsters that cause such poor decision-making in the first place: Don’t go in the woods, don’t go in the basement, don’t go in the attic, etc., etc.

In a refreshing switch, the protagonist of Loon Lake, 30-something widower Louis Olsen (Nathan Wilson), breaks several horror movie commandments and still manages to make it to the final reel (I use the term “reel” metaphorically of course).

But Louis’ clumsy choices pale in comparison to the whopper that gets the whole big ball of terror rolling: his decision to get away from it all by renting a nice, quiet place in the country. As horror fans well know, this is the mother of all mistakes.

Public domain image, Alone in the forest
Back in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby located the Devil in a trendy mid-Manhattan condo. But since then, the “peaceful” countryside has steadily gained ground as the preferred location for all kinds of horrors. The examples are too many to list here, but you know the drill: a man/woman/couple chucks the craziness of the big city and rents/buys/camps-out-in a place in the remote countryside in order to heal from the loss of a child or spouse or try to save a floundering marriage. (And that doesn’t even include the legions of teens-who-go-in-the-woods-and-get-picked-off-one-by-one flicks, which were so cleverly lampooned by The Cabin in the Woods.)

Louis’ reason for trying to find solace in the countryside is doubly tragic -- he lost his beautiful pregnant wife in a fatal car accident. He retreats to a farmhouse located in the middle of Minnesota’s bucolic lake country, but little does he know that the place harbors its own dark secret -- one that is primed to ensnare clueless city slickers who go blundering around where they don’t belong.

The origin of the evil hanging over the area is revealed in an effective pre-titles sequence in which a group of late-nineteenth century villagers, led by a gaunt, grim pastor (David Selby), drag a screaming young woman (Kelly Erin Decker, billed as Kelly Kitko) out to an old tree stump and force her to kneel over. In a final act of defiance, she spits out a curse (and her own epitaph) at the pastor:
“Kind friend, beware as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so ye must be. Prepare yourself to follow me!”
With the pastor’s commandment “Let the Devil take his own!”, a hooded executioner brings his axe down on the poor girl’s neck, but -- in the film’s only concession to real gruesomeness -- has to take three tries before the deed is properly done.

Kelly Erin Decker as Mary Jane Terlinden in Loon Lake (2019)
Mary Jane loses her head after refusing to wear
Viking purple on game day.
Cut to the present, where Louis is arriving at his refuge. As he looks around the farmhouse that he’s rented, he sees a cross on the wall, which, in a bit of poignant foreshadowing, he promptly takes down and stuffs in a drawer. He doesn’t seem to have completely lost his faith, however -- later that night as he prepares for bed, he places his wife’s photo on the nightstand and gently places a necklace with a silver cross over the frame.

The next morning nosy neighbor Emery (Selby) -- the spitting image of the witch-hunting pastor (and his great-grandson, as we find out later) -- comes knocking at the door, telling Louis that he lives in the farmhouse across the field, and is always there if he needs anything. Emery tries hard to get himself invited in, but Louis is not feeling friendly and doesn’t take the bait.

Later, Louis, fishing gear in hand, climbs in his truck to go exploring the lakes in the area. He arrives at peaceful, tranquil Loon Lake, where he inadvertently makes his next big mistake. Forsaking his fishing pole for a camera, he stumbles upon a lonely old cemetery, its weathered headstones poking up amidst the tall grass. Still not realizing he’s in a horror movie, he goes in the cemetery (granted, it’s still daylight, but that turns out to be meaningless to the evil suffusing the place).

One headstone in particular catches his attention: Mary Jane Terlinden’s, whose final words before losing her head are engraved there. Ominous music swells as Louis moves back and forth over the grave, looking for a good camera shot. Suddenly, a huge loon falls out of the sky, dead as a doornail. Uh-oh.

Day 1 of Louis’ cemetery-trespassing ordeal begins. On his way back from the lake, Louis stops at a bar and strikes up a conversation with two locals. When the men hear that the newcomer was walking around the cemetery, they exchange sidelong glances.

The bar owner recounts the legend of the young witch who had been beheaded for cursing the village and causing its crops to fail. “They say she stole a baby too, killed it in some kind of ritual,” his friend sitting at the counter chimes in. “They say if you walk across her grave three times, she comes for you in the middle of the night and you die an accidental death.” You can see the wheels turning in Louis’ head as the men chatter on about locals who visited the grave and then died suddenly. “I hope you weren’t too careless when you were out there,” one of the good ol’ boys says nonchalantly as he hoists his beer. Double uh-oh!

Louis (Nathan Wilson) interacts with the locals in Loon Lake (2019)
"Witches are still out of season, but I hear the walleye fishing is great!"

With these preliminaries out of the way, the curse starts to slowly take hold of Louis’ life. When Gracie (Brittany Benjamin), a waitress at the bar, seems to take an interest in him, they ditch the bar and the good ol’ boys for dinner and drinks at another place. Gracie notices Louis’ wedding ring, and he tells her that his wife died.

Louis gets hammered, and Gracie kindly offers to drive him back to his place. On the way, she tells him she hopes the boys at the tavern didn’t spook him too much. Then she proceeds to double-down on the spookiness by relating the story of how the witch came back from the dead to confront the pastor in his own church.

Evidence that Louis is indeed cursed accumulates slowly, then builds to a crescendo as the days are marked out. At first it’s a strange rustling sound in the cornfield late at night. Then it’s a shadowy figure that flits by a window. Soon, he’s having disturbing dreams of his dead wife holding a baby and walking through rows of corn.

Weirder still, the witch herself begins to invade his dreams. The first dream is of Mary Jane’s initial confrontation with pastor. As she’s cleaning up around the church, the randy old hypocrite tries to assault her. When she rebuffs him, he gathers up his flunkies, and they string her up in an old barn to “find the Devil’s mark” on her body. It’s an interesting sequence, as if Mary Jane was trying to plead her innocence in dreamland court.

Louis (Nathan Wilson) gets lost in a cornfield in Loon Lake (2019)
"Hey Louis, Stephen King says not to go in the corn!
Oh hell, there he goes!"
As the curse’s noose gets tighter, a rattled Louis stumbles around, violating every horror movie commandment in the book: when he sees a shadowy figure slipping into the cornfield, he goes in the cornfield; when the lights go out at the farmhouse, he goes in the basement. In a particularly effective night scene, he hears noises outside the house, and thinking it’s the teenage pranksters that his neighbor Emery warned him about, he charges outside in his bathrobe to scare them off. As he slowly backs up toward the door, the focus shifts to the background, where we see a shadowy figure watching from a second floor window.

Loon Lake wisely forsakes cheap jump scares (for the most part -- there’s one toward the end, but it comes at a point where the film needed a good old-fashioned heart-skip). It methodically rolls out a succession of uncanny events that add up to an atmosphere of simmering dread.

But Loon Lake takes detours from its own suspenseful course by having Mary Jane’s tragic backstory pop up at various points -- first through the tales told by the superstitious locals, and then, as the film progresses, in Louis’ curse-fueled fever dreams.

It’s an interesting choice. We get to know Mary Jane and Pastor Janson up close and personal and are witnesses to the birth of a spooky legend, but each sidetrack to fill in the history of the two characters subtracts some from the present-day suspense.

On the plus side, rather than being ho-hum exposition, the origin-story visions become a crazy quilt of differing perceptions. Just when we’ve decided that Mary Jane was a sweet, innocent, nature-loving victim of a tyrannical, lustful bible-thumper, we see the inverted Mary Jane as a scary witch in full possession of dark powers. And in another inverted scene, we see a much more vulnerable version of pastor Janson as he pours out his heart in an exchange with his wife (Kathyrn Leigh Scott) about the death of their son.

Kelly Erin Decker as Mary Jane Terlinden, Look Lake ((2019)
"I'm telling you, the walleye that got away was this long!"

The visions reflect the disordered state of Louis’ mind as he’s in danger of breaking down in the throes of guilt and dread. Opposing worlds are brought together at the climax, begging the question, just what is the truth? Is it all in Louis’ mixed-up head, or is there something more to it? In a clever plot device, Louis’ wife’s cross necklace and Mary Jane’s primitive, Druid-like necklace figure prominently.

Loon Lake is the product of a dedicated band of independent actors and filmmakers working on a next-to-nothing budget. Just five individuals -- director Ansel Faraj, cinematographer Christopher Lange, sound person David Karon, and lead actors Nathan Wilson and Kelly Erin Decker -- handled all the production duties, from location scouting to props to costumes, in addition to their primary roles. (Decker even made the dead loon models featured in a couple of scenes.)

Pastor Janson (David Selby) becomes the witch's first victim, Loon Lake (2019)
Pastor Janson uses a bit too much lighter fluid
at the church barbecue.
The end result is far more impressive than what would normally be expected of such a bare-bones production. The digital cinematography is rich and atmospheric. According to the film’s IMDb page, director Faraj had Lange study the work of John Coquillon, who shot such cult favorites as Witchfinder General (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), and The Changeling (1980). (Faraj’s other early influences include Germany’s Dr. Mabuse films and the Dark Shadows TV show, which he watched on the Sci-Fi channel.)

Lead actor Nathan Wilson, who grew up in the Round Lake, Minnesota area where the film is set, also co-wrote and co-produced with Faraj (Decker is the third credited co-producer). In the first half of the film, his affect is so flat as the depressed widower that the character verges on being unlikable. But as the curse takes hold of Louis’ mind and he must fight for his sanity, he becomes more animated and vigorous.

Many readers of this blog will recognize David Selby as Quentin Collins, a black sheep of the Collins family and dabbler in the occult in the long-running Dark Shadows series. As pastor Janson, Selby bellows out his self-righteousness as if he’s trying to wake the dead, but then has an opportunity to portray a much more vulnerable and human side of the character opposite another Dark Shadows alum, Kathryn Leigh Scott. The downside of that scene is that it goes on a little too long, interrupting the flow of the film for the sake of fleshing out the characters.

He’s most natural and believable as the present-day great-grandson Emery, who is earnest and friendly and a bit nosy, but is there to serve as a commiserating lifesaver for Louis.

Kelly Erin Decker as Mary Jane Terlinden in a creepy dream sequence, Loon Lake (2019)
"What do you think? It's endorsed by Elizabeth Bathory
and it's supposed to do wonders for your complexion!"
Like Selby, Kelly Erin Decker walks right up to the edge of broad-brush theatricality in her performance as Mary Jane. But she is a formidable presence in her hooded period costume, and she has a great scene in the last of Louis’ nightmare visions. As he stands rooted to the spot in fear, she smears her face with blood, and then, leaning close to him, whispers in a half seductive, half sinister voice, “I can make your pain all go away…”

Also of note are the two colorful locals at the bar (Kevin Kunkel and Daryl Hrdlicka) and the waitress Gracie (Brittany Benjamin). When I was growing up, I spent many a summer in Midwest lake country very much like Round Lake, and met countless characters just like these.

With digital technology that makes the cost of shooting and editing a respectable feature film very affordable, and with ever-expanding streaming options, small-budget labors-of-love like Loon Lake have a fighting chance to find an audience. While there are more independent, low-budget streaming movies out there than you can shake a dead loon at, Loon Lake deserves a look for its atmospheric photography, subtle music score, good use of veteran and neophyte actors, and its quirky take on witchy folklore.

Where to find it: Loon Lake is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

John Karlen in Dark Shadows (1967-1971)
In Memoriam: Sadly, another veteran of Dark Shadows, John Karlen, passed away on January 22, 2020 at the age of 86. John's signature role on the series was as Willie Loomis, the irascible and unscrupulous con artist who was always a pain in the side of the residents of Collinsport.

John appeared in the two feature-length Dark Shadows movies, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971), and then became a reliable guest star on almost every TV show you can think of through the 1990s. Outside of Dark Shadows, his biggest recurring role was as Tyne Daley's husband on the 1980s hit show Cagney & Lacey.

Horror fans will also remember him for his appearances in two cult classics, Daughters of Darkness (1971) and the Dan Curtis-produced TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975)

January 14, 2020

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Vincent Price

Poster - Diary of a Madman (1963)
Now Playing: Diary of a Madman (1963)

Pros: Plays well as either supernatural or psychological horror, depending upon your mood; Price’s mostly understated performance hits just the right note.
Cons: The Horla’s voice sounds more like a mean boss on a bad Monday than a sinister, unearthly creature.

By the end of his career, Vincent Price had appeared in (or done voice work for) over 200 films and TV shows. Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1911, he parlayed an upper middle-class upbringing and top-notch education into an early theater success, playing Prince Albert in the hit play “Victoria and Regina” in both London and New York.

In an era when successful stage actors often attracted the attention of Hollywood scouts, Price made the leap into movies, achieving second billing under Constance Bennett in a high society comedy, Service de Luxe, in 1938. While he was active in theater the rest of his life, it’s the movies, especially the B horrors that marked the latter part of his career, for which he’s most famous.

Even in the heady days of the 1940s, before television disrupted the movie industry, there were some early macabre roles that hinted of things to come. In 1940, Price took a turn as the titular character in The Invisible Man Returns (and eight years later provided the voice of the Invisible Man in the gag ending of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). In the low-budget thriller Shock (1946), he played a wife-murdering physician who attends to the traumatized, mute woman who witnessed the foul deed from her apartment window.

Vincent Price as Cardinal Richelieu, The Three Musketeers (1948)
Price as Cardinal Richelieu
But mostly Price was occupied in period costume dramas, with an occasional crime drama or western thrown in the mix. Although he was an all-American mid-westerner by birth, his meticulous appearance, aristocratic bearing, and theater-trained, Mid-Atlantic-accented voice made him a natural choice for upper-crust characters from all kinds of places and time periods. By 1950, he had played Joseph Smith (Brigham Young, 1940), King Charles II (Hudson’s Bay, 1941), Cardinal Richelieu (The Three Musketeers, 1948), and even an Arab pasha (Bagdad, 1949).

Off camera, Price’s real life was almost as interesting as the characters he played. More than a few of Vincent’s fellow actors and filmmakers have testified that he was the consummate gentleman on the set, always approachable and ready to help.

In between his movie and stage work he managed to pursue a number of passions. He was a renowned art collector and patron, active in such organizations such as the Archives of American Art and the National Society of Arts and Letters. He even partnered with Sears Roebuck & Co. to make original, affordable works of art available in stores via the Vincent Price Collection (he personally curated the collection by making frequent buying trips).

As if that weren’t enough, Vincent was also a noted culinary expert and wine connoisseur. With his wife Mary, he co-authored a lavish cookbook, A Treasury of Great Recipes (1965), which became a bestseller and eventually a collector’s item. His growing gastronomic reputation led to an invitation to be a co-founder of the American Food and Wine Institute, as well an appointment as the international ambassador for California wines. Naturally, the Price’s dinner parties attracted the cream of Hollywood society, politicians, and even a British royal or two. (For more on Price's fascinating life outside of theater and film, see Victoria Price's excellent book Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1999.)

Cover - A Treasury of Great Recipes, Mary and Vincent Price
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say Price made movies and appeared in plays in between living a highly cultured, exemplary life. But being wealthy and refined isn’t always as easy as it seems, especially in the United States. Americans have always been conflicted about high society. They admire great wealth, but are largely put off by intellectuals and connoisseurs of all types who they see as setting themselves above average, hard-working people.

Popular movies naturally reflect the values and biases of the public at large. Ironically, the urbane, sophisticated Price made a very good living portraying refined, worldly characters who were also villainous, corrupt and/or ridiculous.

As Longfellow said, “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” It’s been a long-running tradition that whom the Hollywood gods would destroy, they first make into B-movie madmen. The list of glamorous A-list stars who, as they aged, descended into what must have seemed like the 7th circle of B-movie hell to keep working is a very long one (think Joan Crawford’s last role in the execrable sci-fi/horror pic Trog, or Ray Milland as The Thing with Two Heads).

Price’s advantage when the B movie horror scripts inevitably came flooding in was that he was never a leading man to begin with, and the characters he was used to playing were often unsympathetic. He still played millionaires (House on Haunted Hill, 1959), industrialists (The Fly, 1958 & Return of the Fly, 1959), doctors (The Tingler, 1959; The Abominable Dr. Phibes, 1970) and the usual assortment of princes and nobles (Pit and the Pendulum, 1961; The Masque of the Red Death, 1964; etc.), but the horror genre largely supplanted the historical costume, crime, and romance dramas of his earlier career.

Poster - House of Wax (1953)
The film that opened up the floodgates was House of Wax (1953), a 3D remake of Lionel Atwill’s 1933 vehicle Mystery of the Wax Museum. In House, Price plays Henry Jarrod, sculptor and proprietor of a failing wax museum, who is horribly injured when his business associate burns down the museum to collect the insurance money. Jarrod rebounds by opening up a new museum of the macabre that is far more commercially successful, but lurking behind the scenes is a madman who has been scarred both physically and psychologically.

Released by Warner Bros. at the beginning of the 3D craze of the early ‘50s, House was wildly successful, raking in over $20 million on a paltry $1 million budget. The film was Price’s sensational horror debut, the equivalent of Karloff’s Frankenstein and Lugosi’s Dracula. It was also one of the few times that Vincent would don horror makeup as the frightfully disfigured Jarrod. Price’s stock-in-trade would become playing characters who were refined and elegant on the outside, but monsters, often mad ones, on the inside.

Diary of a Madman, released a full decade after House of Wax, is typical of the typecasting that dominated Price’s resume after his effective performance as the mad sculptor Jarrod. Diary came smack dab in the middle of a run of low-budget, technicolor Gothic horrors, most from American International Pictures, that solidified Price as a King of Terror in the same league as Karloff, Lugosi, Lee and Cushing. In the several years leading up to Diary, House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Raven (1963) had chilled audiences; The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) would soon follow.

Diary came from Admiral Pictures, not AIP, but most horror fans were unlikely to care, given that it ticked off most of the boxes for a scary-good time at the theater. Like the AIP Poe pictures, Diary was shot in gorgeous technicolor on a nothing budget. It tells the tale of a respected French magistrate (or judge if you prefer) who finds himself in the thrall of an invisible evil entity that has the power to take over his will and make him kill.

Harvey Stephens as the condemned prisoner Girot, Diary of a Madman (1963)
"I tell you doc, I get this throbbing headache right here,
and then everything turns green!"
The story is told in extended flashback, as friends and associates of the recently deceased magistrate, Simon Cordier (Price), assemble to read his will and diary. According to the diary,  the trouble starts when Cordier agrees to meet with convicted murderer Louis Girot (Harvey Stephens), soon to be executed. In his cell, Girot passionately insists that his testimony at trial -- that he was possessed by an evil force and wasn’t even aware of what he was doing -- is the truth. Cordier is having none of it, but then has to fight for his life as Girot’s eyes light up with an eerie green glow and he attacks the magistrate. In fending him off, Cordier shoves him against the hard stone of the cell, and Girot is killed instantly.

The unnerving confrontation with the condemned man soon leads to a series of uncanny incidents that have Cordier doubting his sanity. Trying to relax in his study, he is alarmed to see that a photograph of his dead wife and child is hanging next to the fireplace. He interrogates his manservant, who has no idea how the portrait got there. Returning it to a trunk in the attic, Cordier is again alarmed when he walks over to look at a bust of his wife, and finds the words “Hatred is evil” written in the heavy dust in front of the sculpture -- words that Girot had uttered just before attacking him. When he tries to show the writing to the manservant, he’s shocked to find that it has completely vanished.

The high strangeness culminates back at Cordier’s court offices, where he finds that the file containing Girot’s trial testimony has mysteriously appeared on his desk. Suddenly, a bottle of ink turns over onto the papers as if tipped by an invisible hand. Cordier hears disembodied, evil laughter, then collapses in his chair as a voice menacingly tells him, “You deprived me of Girot’s body, his mind, his will… now I will have yours!”

Fearing for his sanity and unable to continue with his magistrate duties, Cordier retreats home. He makes a visit to the doctor, who dismisses the idea that he is going mad. The doctor prescribes a change of lifestyle, advising him to reconnect with the art world and take up sculpting again, which he enjoyed when his wife was still alive.

Vincent Price and Nancy Kovack in Diary of a Madman (1963)
Cordier, Odette, and Odette's bust (okay, I know what
you're thinking - get your mind out of the gutter!)
Strolling along the art district, Cordier sees a portrait of a beautiful, graceful dancer in a gallery window and is immediately captivated. The model, Odette Mallotte (Nancy Kovack), happens along just then and coyly suggests to Cordier that he buy the painting as she knows that “the artist could use the money.” When she learns that he’s an amateur sculptor, she suggests modelling for him.

Cordier agrees, unaware that Odette is the painter’s wife. She is none too happy that her husband (Paul Duclasse, played by Chris Warfield) is struggling and selling his paintings too cheaply, and sees an opportunity to get some money out of the wealthy magistrate.

Over the course of the next several weeks, Cordier is rejuvenated as Odette sits for him. He’s had no more visits from the malevolent entity, and is beginning to think it was all a bad dream as he becomes more and more enamored by Odette.

The relationship becomes so cozy that, in an unguarded moment, he admits to Odette that his wife committed suicide. The admission seems to have triggered something: after Odette leaves the studio, the invisible entity barges back into the good magistrate’s life like an avenging angel (or demon).

In a theatrical voice dripping with contempt, it introduces itself as a Horla, a member of a race of beings that exist on a parallel plane of existence, but who can be brought into the human plane through acts of human evil. When Cordier protests that he has always fought evil, the Horla accuses him of murder-- he blamed his innocent wife for the death of their son and drove her to suicide.

“Now I am here and will never leave you,” the Horla declares. Through Cordier’s unacknowledged evil acts, he has surrendered his will to the malevolent entity. With the Horla seemingly in control, the once respectable magistrate starts down the road to perdition.

Simon Cordier (Vincent Price) senses the Horla, Diary of a Madman (1963)
"Where are you, you wascally Horla!"
Soon, Odette’s painting is prominently hanging over the fireplace, and Cordier is wining and dining her. When he proposes marriage and places his dead wife’s treasured necklace around her neck, Odette is so happy that she conveniently forgets to tell him she’s already married. When the husband Paul visits Cordier to insist that he leave his wife alone, the magistrate doubles down, insisting that nothing will stop him from marrying Odette. Before leaving, Duclasse warns Cordier that his sterling reputation might be damaged if word got out about his romancing a married woman.

The Horla tells Cordier that Paul must die, but Cordier resists. Ominously, a huge vase in the mansion’s entryway falls as Paul makes his exit, narrowly missing him. This is only the first incident in a grim series that will result in murder, mutilation, and attempted murder.

Somewhat like the Horla itself, there is a less visible movie -- one of subtler psychological horror -- lurking in the shadows behind what appears to be straight-out horror. On the surface, Diary of a Madman hits viewers over the head with the idea of a very real, yet invisible monster.

At the film’s end, as Cordier’s associates are trying to make sense of his diary, the manservant insists, “he was ill for so long, the insanity grew worse, he didn’t know what he was doing!” The estate executor turns to the priest with a half-question -- “this Horla, it was in his imagination of course…” -- to which the priest responds, “can it be denied that evil exists, or that it can possess a man?”

Edward Colmans and Elaine Devry in Diary of a Madman (1963)
"Dang! Cordier only left me his toaster oven
and this stupid diary!"
And yet, looked at another way, the film makes a strong case for possession -- but by a guilty unconscious mind rather than an invisible external being. At the beginning we’re presented with a man who, in spite of his important standing and impeccable reputation, is also a lonely widower with no social life.

Cordier has just finished presiding over an arduous capitol murder trial and sentenced a man to death -- one who attacks him in his jail cell after making one last desperate tempt to proclaim his innocence. This opens up a Pandora’s box of unpleasant memories, manifested by the portrait of his wife and son that mysteriously shows up in his study.

Cordier’s studio with its dust-covered reminders of a previous life is a perfect metaphor for the magistrate’s unconscious repression of his own guilt. The writing in the dust that is there and then suddenly isn’t -- “Hatred is evil” -- is a warning from that unconscious.

Vivacious, flirtatious Odette seems to promise new life and new love, and it’s just at this point, where Cordier’s hope is greatest, that the Horla, like a monster from the Id, rises up with a vengeance. The entity takes the portrait of Cordier’s dead family out of its dusty trunk and hurls it at him, accusing him of murder by mental cruelty. Perhaps worse yet, the Horla uses its invisible hands to rework the clay of Odette’s sculpture from a laughing beauty to the visage of a malicious, calculating shrew. Despite Cordier’s weak protestations, the verdict is severe: his past is a lie, as is his future; he has become a condemned prisoner of his own guilty mind.

After Paul Duclasse’s visit, Cordier knows there is no future with the gold-digging Odette, but she has awakened hope and yearning (and the Horla) in him, and for that she has to die. At this point, Diary pays gruesome homage to Price’s memorable role in House of Wax. With no recollection of following Odette to her apartment and stabbing her, he is shocked by the morning paper’s headline that her headless corpse has been found.

Cordier (Vincent Price) discovers the bloody sculpture of Odette in Diary of a Madman (1963)
It's deja vu all over again: Price does his familiar mad sculptor bit.
Following a trail of blood up to his studio, Cordier finds a knife sticking out of Odette’s bust, and his worst fears are confirmed when he peels back the clay to reveal the woman’s head and a dead, staring eye. Shades of the mad sculptor Jarrod!

Paul Duclasse is arrested for the murder on the testimony of witnesses who saw him arguing with his wife shortly before the crime. Cordier at first denies having known Odette or Paul, but when he is scheduled to preside at Paul’s trial, his conscience gets the better of him, setting up a final confrontation with the Horla (or his unconscious, or both -- you make the call).

Price is excellent as the prominent, respected man haunted by his past and an invisible entity that won’t let him forget it. In an interview conducted years after the film’s release, director Reginald Le Borg paid Price something of a backhanded compliment. When asked if Price had any enthusiasm for the role or if it was just another job for him, Le Borg responded,
"It was just another job for him. But he did become conscious that I was holding him down. I had looked at some of his other pictures, and I thought he overacted in some. On Diary of a Madman I held him down -- he started to gesticulate and raise his voice in some scenes, and so I took him aside and whispered, ‘Tone it down, it’ll be much more effective that way.’ He did, and he thanked me very much afterward." [Tom Weaver, Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers, McFarland, 1988, p. 246]
In the same interview, Le Borg also addressed one of the more problematic aspects of the film -- the Horla’s voice:
"I felt that the story was a good one and it came out very well -- except for the voice of the Horla, which I wanted to distort quite a bit. We made a test of the voice, the way I wanted it, and [producer] Eddie Small said, ‘I can’t understand a word!’ He wanted the Horla to speak normally, which was wrong." [Ibid., p. 245]
Wrong is something of an understatement. The Horla, performed by Joseph Ruskin, sounds like a game show announcer trying to be sinister, and goes a long way to undoing the carefully crafted aura of uncanny dread.

Chris Warfield and Nancy Kovack in Diary of a Madman (1963)
"Hey, what's with all that clay you've been
bringing home on your clothes?"
Another unintentionally amusing aspect of the creature is the way it keeps making its entrance. About mid-way through the film it’s established that the thing is no insubstantial ghost, but a corporeal, physical thing that happens to be invisible (or at least that’s the way Cordier perceives it). After the 4th or 5th time it came blowing through the french doors of Cordier’s study, I thought to myself, “why doesn’t he just lock the doors?!”

On the plus side of the ledger is Nancy Kovack’s performance as Odette. In addition to being scheming and flirtatious, Odette is also vivacious in a way that goes beyond mere good looks. She is happy and healthy and enjoys the company of men. Even as she’s throwing over her poor, struggling artist husband for the wealthy and respectable Cordier, you can still sympathize with her, at least a little -- girls like Odette just want to have fun, and she was unlucky to be born in the wrong era.

While Diary is not up there with the best of Price’s Gothic horrors, it’s a solid B production, competently (if somewhat stodgily) directed, beautifully shot by cinematographer Ellis W. Carter, and featuring some good performances. Unfortunately, debuting in the middle of Price’s run of highly acclaimed and profitable Edgar Allan Poe pictures for AIP, it got somewhat lost in the shuffle. But the Horla still lives on in digital streams and on DVD.

Where to find it: try here for the DVD; and for the moment, it’s also streaming on Youtube.

Guy de Maupassant, writer of 'The Horla'
Epilogue: Fittingly for such a creature, the Horla seems to have been born out of real tragedy. Guy de Maupassant, “father of the modern short story,” was famous for his clever plots and keen insights into psychological states. He influenced a number of great writers, including Somerset Maugham, Henry James and O. Henry. A lover of solitude, later in life he developed a paranoia complex that was no doubt aggravated by the syphilis that he contracted as a young man. A few years after writing The Horla he tried committing suicide, and died in a private asylum in Paris in 1893.

In his article for Mysterious Universe, “Famous Writers and their Bizarre Paranormal Experiences,” Brent Swancer relates Maupassant’s tortured state of mind in his last years:
"[T]owards the end of his life [Maupassant] claimed that he had frequently been visited by his doppelgänger, who would often talk and interact with him. One day, things took a sinister turn when de Maupassant was sitting at work writing a story called The Horla, when his doppelgänger had apparently entered the room, calmly taken a seat next to him, and begun dictating what the author was writing until the unnerved man called to his servant in a panic and the double vanished. Bizarrely, this particular story he had been working on is about a man being haunted by an evil entity that plans to turn him insane and take over his body. Almost prophetically, Maupassant is said to have gradually lost his grip on sanity in the years after finishing the story. As his mental state further deteriorated, Maupassant was allegedly visited by his doppelgänger again, with the entity sitting in his room and burying its face in its hands as if in abject despondency. Maupassant would later be admitted to an insane asylum, where he would eventually die around a year after this weird last encounter, perhaps with thoughts of the doppelgänger still dancing through his head. Maupassant would write about his doppelgänger experience in his short story Lui."