17 January 2010

Oh No, Roddy McDowall Has a Killer Statue: It!

It! (1967)
Directed by Herbert J. Leder. Starring Roddy McDowall, Jill Haworth, Paul Maxwell.

What if Norman Bates gained control of the Power of God, and the British military had to use a nuclear warhead to stop him?

Hey, it’s happened… in It!

Long before Stephen King monopolized the neuter pronoun for horrordom, a mid-‘60s U.K. film starring Roddy McDowall and a giant raisin-textured statue played out this scenario while trying to resemble a Hammer horror flick. It is as wackily entertaining as it sounds, a real oddly-cut gem of the Anglo-horror cycle.

I originally saw It! in the early ‘80s when I was an impressionable elementary school kid. Local Los Angeles station KCOP Channel 13 frequently broadcast old horror movies during prime time weeknights in five-day blocks—usually with an uncreative title like “A Week of Horrors!” This was how I first saw a number of classics like Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and Carrie, although in TV-edited form. (Considering how squeamish a kid I was, I wasn’t ready for the un-edited versions.) I also saw some unknown flicks that later vanished from the airwaves and public consciousness until DVD rescued them. It! is one of my KCOP lost classics: I vividly remember the commercials for it, featuring a shriveled-grape statue throttling people. It seemed terrifying to a nine-year-old, although I found the film itself far less scary than the fevered commercials.

Information on It! was hard to find during the next twenty years. The movie never received a release on VHS in the U.S., and local TV stations had stopped showing these second-tier 1960s movies as cable and home video took over. I began to wonder if I had dreamed up the movie or was confusing it with another film. The advent of the Internet allowed me to locate data about the film (once I could finally remember the title), but not until 2008 did It! appear on a Region 1 DVD, paired with The Shuttered Room, and let me re-experience this tiny corner of childhood.

For its subject, It! takes up a legend that Hammer should have tackled when it started to search for new monsters to expand on the old Universal stable: the Golem. A piece of Jewish folklore about a stone statue brought to life, the Golem seems like a perfect horror movie topic, but only a few filmmakers have adapted it to the screen. The most famous film featuring the Golem is the 1920 German expressionist classic, Der Golem, Wie Er in die Welt Kam, which It! mentions in passing (Roddy McDowall’s character claims he went to see a revival screening of the movie as an alibi). That film deals with the legend of the Golem of Prague, brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew in the sixteenth century. Loew is an historical figure, but the tale of his creation of the Golem did not appear until two hundred years after his death.

It! could be considered a sequel the legend of the Golem of Prague, imagining what would happen if the invincible statue was recovered in the twentieth century, where another man brings it to life to serve his own ends.

This background might give you the sense that It! is a dark, sinister epic. But we’re talking about a film whose title ends in an exclamation mark… how serious do you think it can be? It! has the colorful Hammer horror market on its mind, not the bleaker implication of a statue created to defend Jews from persecution. Director-writer-producer Herbert J. Leder purposely tried to copy the look of the Hammer movies that dominated the British market of the ‘60s for It! He almost succeeded… except that the movie is set in contemporary London, and not the usual Victorian or Edwardian setting of the Hammer movies. However, since most of the film takes place in a Museum of Vaguely Old Things, keeping the Hammer period feeling wasn’t that tough.

Star Roddy McDowall plays Arthur Pimm, an assistant curator at a museum that receives a grotesque eight-foot statue in a shipment from Prague. McDowall and the curator find the intact statue in the ruins of the burnt-down warehouse, and only a few minutes later the curator dies inexplicably off-screen. Pimm, already acting rather strange, suspects the statue has some link to the curator’s death—its arms appear to have shifted—but keeps quiet about it. He also steals away the curator’s keys and swipes a gem from the museum’s collection to give to his aged mother. Acutally, his dead mother, whose desiccated corpse sits in a rocking chair in Pimm’s apartment where he can talk to it all evening about the cute girl at the office.

So, looking at the scorecard, we are five minutes into the film and already we have a killer giant statue and a insane assistant museum curator who apparently thinks that Psycho is a self-help movie. Off to a good start.

Pimm has two specific goals: he wants the curatorship, and he wants the sexy daughter of the dead curator, Ellen Grove (Jill Haworth). He is quickly denied both: the museum board appoints an older curator over the inexperienced Pimm; and Ellen falls fast for Jim Parkins (Paul Maxwell), an expert from a New York museum that may wish to purchase the statue. It’s Parkins who first suggests the statue might be the Golem and discovers inscriptions on it in Hebrew that might reveal the truth. Pimm latches onto this idea, has a scholar of Hebrew translate the inscriptions for him, then uses a magical scroll to bring the statue to life.

People will end up dead, bridges will be wrecked, and few more jewels will end up draped around Mrs. Pimm’s brittle dead neck.

The Golem is an impressive piece of design, a ridged and horrific-looking “primitive.” Some of its majesty vanishes when it comes to life and stumbles around as an obvious tall guy-in-a-suit and substitute Frankenstein Monster; if the movie had the budget and the time, the Golem would have made an astonishing stop-motion animated creature.

But the clumsiness of the living Golem is off-set by the fun performance of Roddy McDowall, a performer who can overact without seeming like he’s overacting. His Pimm appears lunatic from the beginning, even if viewers can’t quite put their fingers on exactly what makes him so insane (aside from the dead mother in his apartment). Pimm’s obsession with Ellen and amoral selfishness balance out with his queasiness about the power that has come into his hands. Once Pimm understand that the Golem is too potent for him to control and decides he has to destroy it, McDowall’s performance starts to get feverishly nuts, and the film happily follows him.

The conclusion of It! is daft. There’s no other word to describe it. Did Leder think that audiences would believe for a moment that the military, in order to arrest a single minor criminal, would resort to using a nuclear weapon? If this is a standard British military solution, then the London in this film must be the most dangerous spot on the face of the earth; the police probably stop jaywalkers with anti-tank missiles. It’s also amazing how quickly the army gives up and goes for the nuclear option simply because a statue is blocking the gate to a cloister. I know that the Golem is supposedly indestructible, but I imagine that the queen could muster enough men to run around this slow-walking thing. The Golem makes the Kharis mummy look like a 100-meter dash gold medalist.

I’m not actually complaining. The film doesn’t have the budget to make this ending stick (the army appears to consist of five men, in camouflaged helmets no less; are they worried about sudden sniper attacks from rugby teams?) but bless Herbert J. Leder for trying! The movie is strange enough as it is, and refuses to disappoint at the finish.

I wouldn’t recommend re-making It!, but I think Hollywood is overdue for a new movie about The Golem and How He Came into the World. Leave the nukes out of it, however; that territory is covered.