Monday, April 10, 2017

"Peculiar to Men Who Follow the Dangers of the Sea" - The Dungeon of Harrow (1962)

We shall next turn to a classical adventure story set in the nineteenth century: 1964's The Dungeon of Harrow. This tale of derring-do proves that filmmakers do not require huge budgets or big-name performers to entertain; as long as they have a dungeon and some scenes of torture, they can create high art.

Of course, not all critics appreciate this chilling tale. JoeKarlosi on IMDB writes, "Make no mistake - this is a pretty awful film." Reviewer rwagn , also on IMDB, writes, "the most plodding delivery of lines that I can recollect. Even the voice over narration is stupor inducing. Every line is delivered in this irritating plodding demeanor." Reviewer lemon_magic writes, "The plot is a shambles with no continuity to speak of....Most of the dialog is simply ridiculous and stilted."

Such slanders will not stand. Let us prepare to take a voyage through The Dungeon of Harrow.

The film begins on a stormy night in a massive castle. A man gazes at his family crest emblazoned on a red curtain. The F stands for Fallon. The man is Aaron Fallon, and he laments his unspecified fate of unspeakable horror (a word he has trouble pronouncing), taking a seat at a writing desk and telling us his story.

In 1870, Aaron was aboard his father's ship, the clipper LeStrade (which he pronounces with a long "a"), bound for the Americas. A storm wrecks the ship on jagged rocks; apparently the only two survivors of the wreck are Aaron Fallon and the ship's captain, a portly bearded gentleman wearing a knit hat who bears a striking resemblance to Ricky Jay. The only thing they retrieve from the wreckage is the damaged curtain with the Fallon family crest.

"I'm quite familiar with the object, Mr. Fallon," says the captain, "and if you'll be so condescending, we'll put it to a useful purpose." They burn the curtain for a campfire.

"I'm not overly fond of fish, Captain. Tomorrow, see if you can find some game. I much prefer some meat."

As shipwreck victims generally do, the two men air their differences through sparklingly witty dialogue. Fallon asks, "You're quite certain that I'm a bit of an ass, aren't you, Captain?"

"I don't believe there's a yes or a no answer to that, Mr. Fallon. I feel as though you've been bred to a set of standards that don't apply to every situation."

"By that you mean our present situation, I suppose."

"Our present situation? Yes. However, if you are indeed your father's son, Mr. Fallon, you have a strength of which you are totally unaware."

In voiceover, the future Aaron Fallon, whose voice is much deeper than the younger Aaron Fallon's, explains, "For the first time, I saw in the captain's face that wisdom and dedication peculiar to men who follow the dangers of the sea, but a strength that would crumble under the terror that was so suddenly forced upon us." Future Aaron Fallon has difficulty pronouncing the word "terror."

The film cuts to another part of the island, the castle of the elderly, white, sunburned Count Lorente DeSade (pronounced with a long "a") and his black manservant, who wears what appears to be a Santa Claus suit cut off at the midriff and thighs. The manservant explains that the dogs have killed a woman, which alarms the count, who is afraid of any people finding his island. There are no women on the island, he says.

Count DeSade drinks some wine to calm himself and immediately hallucinates another man in the room. The hallucination, who bears a resemblance to both Orson Welles and Paul Dooley, says, "I can do every evil thing you have desired to do to others."

"No, no, no. I have never wished evil," says the count.

"You have never wished evil on anyone? Count, recall the incident of the cobra. You thought it a convenient way to do in poor old Lord Balthrop. But you couldn't find a cobra, remember? All you had to do was ask me."

(It is unclear why the phantom gentleman refers to this as the incident of the cobra, as the count was apparently unable to procure a cobra and must have let the matter slide.)

The hallucinatory gentleman, giggling loudly, conjures evil thoughts of a cobra, a bat, and a giant spider on strings. "Yes, we have many more, don't we?" the gentleman says, though "many more" of what is unclear. Possibly these represent evil thoughts.

The phantasm disappears, but first says, "I think it only fitting and proper that I leave a  calling card. My calling card. A remembrance that you and I are always as your mind!"

In the morning, on the other side of the island, Fallon and the captain find the body of a woman who had been a passenger on the ship. She was killed by wild animals, probably DeSade's dogs.

Soon, the two stumble into a trap. Subdued by DeSade's manservant, who trips Fallon, knocking him unconscious, they are dragged to the count's castle.

Imprisoned in the dungeon (we are not yet informed whether this is the titular dungeon of harrow), Fallon makes the acquaintance of Cassandra, a young woman who works for the count. (Why the count previously told us there was no woman on the island is left as a tantalizing mystery.)

Cassandra invites Fallon to dine with the count. "I was sent to announce the count has elected to share his evening fare with you, an obligation I have now discharged. If you wish to show your lack of gratitude by refusing, then I'll relay your indiscretion."

Fallon does not refuse the invitation. He shares dinner with DeSade, the picture of sophistication in his velour high-collared dinner jacket.

Fallon makes a remark during dinner, but the count stands up and pounds on the table wordlessly. "Please, sir," Cassandra entreats, "the count will not tolerate conversation during repast."

Count DeSade apologizes and agrees to converse during dinner.

Fallon introduces himself as from Bath. Count DeSade says Bath is losing its social importance. "Too bad, too bad."

(Some unsophisticated viewers might be confused by the strong American accents of all the actors, despite the description of Fallon as English and DeSade as French. Such viewers would not see the intentional irony commenting on filmmakers' typical use of artificial accents to signal speaking in a different language, as when false German accents are used in World War II movies to indicate the characters are supposed to be speaking German, or when British accents are used to indicate characters are supposed to be speaking pretty much any other language.)

The narrator, future Aaron Fallon, intones, "His face bore the sallow pallor of a lifetime of dissipation and his eyes held that familiar paranoid glint of inbreeding that left no doubt: Yes, my host was quite mad."

The count pines for the days when his countess was still alive. He berates Cassandra: "Tonight you can put your trivial babbling to one side and Mr. Fallon will talk. Yes, we'll listen to Mr. Fallon. Well?"

But Fallon begs off, excusing himself due to shipwreck-induced exhaustion, an excuse he will only be able to make 2-3 more times.

Free to roam the castle, Fallon runs back to the dining room just as Count DeSade is departing. Fallon follows him and finds the coffin of the Countess DeSade, conveniently kept in the room beside the dining room. He believes the count has taken refuge inside the coffin, but Cassandra interrupts him and he never opens the coffin. She delivers the immortal line, "The truth is dark enough, without learning about it at night. Tomorrow will be soon enough."

In his bedroom, Fallon looks through a previously unnoticed window and watches another woman being whipped. He tries to intervene but the bedroom door is locked.

We find out, in fact, that the castle is essentially full of women. In a dungeon (perhaps that of Harrow), the Count and his manservant torture a mute young woman, along with the ship's captain, whom the count, previously established as insane, believes to be a pirate.

The next day, Fallon finds out the secret of the castle from Cassandra, who needs almost no provocation to tell the story.

Here Cassandra delivers a tour de force performance, explaining the entire backstory of the film in a matter of no more than 10 minutes.

She points to a portrait of the countess and explains she had a terrible illness.

"There's no illness in the portrait," Fallon says, quite correctly.

"You see, Mr. Fallon, the countess was a leper," explains Cassandra. "He came to this island, bought this castle." Everyone is in exile on the island, isolated because of the woman's leprosy.

To further complicate matters, the countess went insane, reliving her wedding day over and over until she was locked up.

"Are you saying the countess is not dead?" asks Fallon.

"Yes, the countess is not dead," repeats Cassandra. She is locked in the dungeon (perhaps that of Harrow).

"It explains why the count is a little deranged," says Fallon.

"It's worse than that," she says. "He's insane. Criminally insane."

It is even worse: The count has come to believe that all sailors are pirates! This does not bode well for the captain and Mr. Fallon.

When the mute woman, Ann, enters to serve tea, Fallon in voiceover shows he is truly a sensitive soul: "Ann could have been a beautiful girl, but it was difficult to see beyond the swelling of bruises and the scars of the count's mistreatment." (It should be noted that Ann's scars are not visible on film.)

Despite Fallon's revulsion for Ann, she hides in his room and attempts to seduce him, though he refuses her advances. Instead, he asks her to rescue the captain, which she immediately races to do, starting by breaking a two-by-four over the head of the count's manservant.

Unfortunately for Ann, the count arrives in the dungeon and ties her to the rack, preparing to torture her instead of the captain.

(Cleverly, the film reinforces Fallon's inability to actually do anything, as he paces in his room while the mute teenager mounts the rescue mission.)

Outside the dungeon, Fallon discusses the possibility of escaping the island with Cassandra, who quickly jumps at the idea of murdering the count. However, they are interrupted by the count and his manservant.

Through complex plot developments, everyone escapes the torture chamber, and the manservant kills the captain, then comes after Fallon.

But Fallon falls backward into the coffin of the countess, which turns out to hide a staircase to the dungeon below--actually a secret second dungeon (perhaps this one is the titular Dungeon of Harrow, though it is not named).

Fallon is left to face the horrors of Countess DeSade, who is in the next room, still reliving her wedding day. Fallon is frightened of such a fate. He closes his eyes in fright.

A skeletal arm reaches through a hole in a locked door, reaching for a door latch.

"My imagination would not permit me to visualize what face that belonged to that dead arm," Future Aaron Fallon says in voiceover.

The arm reaches the latch and opens the door. The bride emerges and puts the proverbial moves on Fallon, whom she thinks is her husband. She removes her veil. Her face is dark and her skin is a bit patchy. She kisses Fallon.


Fallon screams like a six-year-old girl.

Cassandra enters and kills the countess with a knife. Now is the time to escape.

But Fallon has changed his mind. "I came very close to becoming a permanent occupant of this dungeon, Cassandra. In fact, I'm not certain that I haven't crossed that thin line that separates the sanities."

Fallon and Cassandra escape into the dark forest. DeSade chases them with his dogs, who find them almost immediately. The fugitives cross a stream, buying them time. At dawn, the dogs continue the chase. When the count's manservant falls and cannot get up, the count shoots him with a rifle. "I always do what you say," says the manservant. "Even die." And he dies.

In the thrilling climax, Fallon jumps the elderly count, getting the better of the old man and killing him with the rifle.

Fallon and Cassandra return to the castle, waiting for a supply ship to come. A year later, it arrives, but the moment is not a happy one. Somehow, the ship's crew realizes at first glance that Fallon and Cassandra are lepers. The crew rows back to their ship in the harbor, never to be seen again.

Cassandra explains that the color of their skin gives away their condition. She speaks truthfully; we see their skin has become bright purple.

And so Mr. Fallon is trapped on the island forever, alone because Cassandra has become quite deranged.

It is time to put her away. The two walk to the coffin and open it, as history is doomed to repeat itself.

The Dungeon of Harrow was filmed in the early 1960s in Texas by Pat Boyette, in between successful careers as a TV news anchorman and a comic book artist for Charlton, DC, and Warren, among other publishers. Mr. Boyette's visual flair is evident in The Dungeon of Harrow, with its beautiful mix of primary colors and its gorgeous miniature work. Mr. Boyette directed three movies in Texas--The Weird Ones, The Dungeon of Harrow, and No Man's Land--before turning his attention to comic books.

Mr. Boyette's visual style is not the only strength of The Dungeon of Harrow. Its writing is also superior, resulting in many clever touches. For example, from the opening, it appears that this film will be another version of the oft-filmed story "The Most Dangerous Game," as it is set on a remote island owned by a sadistic lunatic from the upper class. However, the plot becomes something different, focusing on the count's madness and the relationships among the island's many inhabitants rather than a hunting expedition. Kudos to the writers, Mr. Boyette and Henry Garcia, for defying our expectations so cleverly.

Kudos are also due to the writers for the film's intricate, mannered dialogue. The complexity of actor's words is something at which to marvel. To their credit, Mr. Boyette and Mr. Garcia are not ones to allow their characters to come directly to a point; rather, reflecting their well-bred manners, the characters are adept at adding complex phrases and clauses to every line they speak. The result is truly a delight to the ears.

One can only imagine the career Mr. Boyette would have had if he had persisted in making films. Without a doubt, there is an alternate universe out there in which his cinematic output was not cut short. I hope to find that universe some day, so I can revel in those films that, in your universe and in mine, might have been.