Sunday, October 23, 2011

Skeletons in the Closet: Im Banne des Unheimlichen (1968)

aka The Zombie Walks

In the first themed month of many, the members and agents of M.O.S.S. point their eyes/eye-stalks/tentacles/augmentations towards all things skeletal and skull-shaped. You can find our ever growing (at least throughout October) list of fleshless knowledge here.


The rich philanthropist Sir Oliver Ramsay has been killed in a plane crash, leaving his brother Sir Cecil (Wolfgang Kieling) as his inheritor. Sir Cecil isn't quite convinced that his brother is really dead, though, for the badly burned corpse supposedly belonging to Oliver was missing his scorpion ring. Something definitely is up with Oliver's death: during his burial, a terrible laughter fills the church, seemingly coming from Oliver's coffin.

Following this rather disturbing event, Cecil repeatedly sees a stylish skull-faced form wearing a broad-rimmed hat, skeleton gloves and a scorpion ring. That's enough to convince that his brother has turned into a zombie and is out for revenge for some undisclosed misdeed. Once the skeleton-faced form begins to kill the people - starting with Cecil's lawyer - around Sir Cecil with a rare poison hidden in the scorpion's tail of his scorpion ring, Inspector Higgins (Joachim Fuchsberger) of Scotland Yard gets on the case.

Poor Higgins will not only have to cope with a murderous zombie (if he is one)/skull-masked villain of impeccable style, the charming roving reporter Peggy Ward (Siw Mattson) who knows it's '68, and the "comedic" shenanigans of his boss Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck). Our hero will also have to sort through a whole bunch of suspects including a shady physician (Siegfried Rauch), a shady mortician (Wolfgang Spier), a shady and very ill green-faced white guy who is supposed to be a creole from the West Indies (Peter Mosbacher), a shady stranger (Pinkas Braun), a shady nurse (Claude Farell), a shady chauffeur (Jimmy Powell), a shady priest (Hans Krull) and his shady wife (Renate Grosser), and a shady expert (Ilse Pagé) on poisons who lives and works in the most preposterous home ever to be filled with prepared animals. Some of these people would be financially quite better off if something happened to Sir Cecil, which - this being an Edgar Wallace adaptation - of course means many of them will end up quite dead while Higgins is still trying to get his act together.

I'm not an expert on statistics, and therefore can't be quite sure, but I suspect Alfred Vohrer's Edgar Wallace krimi Im Banne des Unheimlichen (which translates to "under the spell of the uncanny" - or "under the spell of the uncanny one", rather than the more pedestrian "the zombie walks") might be the Rialto Wallace movie featuring at once the highest number of suspects and the highest number of corpses; as you know, there's only a thin line dividing suspect and corpse in these films.

Im Banne is a Wallace krimi far on the pop side of the tracks, a film whose stiffly conservative side is permanently subverted by Vohrer's playing up of the script's inherent silliness, as the stiffer and more conservative elements in Vohrer's directorial style are drowned out by his obvious enjoyment of finally being able to play around with colour now that the Wallace films had given up on black and white. It's 1968, after all, and even though Vohrer's idea of pop is pretty far from hippie dreams, it is one that has room for moments of utter psychedelic delight like his frequent use (some will say overuse) of red and green light, a very swank nightclub sequence, and lovingly hideous interior decorations that culminate in the nearly Bollywood-ripe place Professor Bound works in that looks as if a bunch of dead animals had invaded a 60s ethno kitsch bachelor pad.

There are also some very peculiar ideas about the West Indies on display throughout the film. The West Indies, you see, are filled with creole people, some of them very white guys with green faces, who spend their time making zombies with the help of Aztec poison when they're not creating shrunken heads or mixing a drink known as "the zombie". Culturally, the film further suggests, the West Indies are at once part of the Caribbean and of Mexico. Some people will probably find enough material in here to be insulted for life, but for that, you'll have to be able to take this stuff seriously - I certainly don't, nor does the film itself.

The camp quotient pretty much goes through the roof, yet Vohrer does also use the more typical accoutrements of the earnest side of the krimi: rather drab churches, cobwebbed crypts, a swank castle, and a creepy hospital are all there, accounted for and created with a loving look for detail as well, providing the film with as much contact with the style of 1948 as with that of 1968. This contrast works well for the film, since it underlines its slightly surreal streak and pushes its mood into the dream-like and artificial, which is the only way I personally can stand a film this camp. In fact, this works out so well for the film (and for me) that I found myself utterly enthralled by the silly nonsense happening on screen while watching it.

My enjoyment was heightened even further when realizing that Vohrer (or script writer Ladislas Fodor) for once in a Wallace film actually includes a semi-competent woman on the side of the good. Sure, Siw Mattson's Peggy Ward isn't above getting kidnapped and threatened repeatedly, but she's also shown to shrug these meaningless little issues off like a good heroine and do something useful again afterwards; she's also pretty aggressively (and sillily) flirting with Higgins, which is as far from the regular passive female leads of the series as is possible. We probably have to thank the pervading popularity of The Avengers and Emma Peel (who is even mentioned in the dialogue) in Germany for this particular change to the accustomed formula of these films; I give my thanks daily.

Also worth mentioning (what with this being part of Skeletons in the Closet and all), is the excellent, excellent Laughing Corpse/Skull-Faced Gentleman. This particular masked evildoer is one of my absolute favourites in the whole Wallace cycle because he manages to be at once campy and somewhat creepy in concept, and is realized with a fine sense for the importance of little details. There aren't many skull masks with a moveable jaw after all, and not many villains wearing a skull mask, a cloak and gloves would sew themselves actual skeleton gloves. (Am I the only one hoping for a costume sewing scene in one these films?). It's that sort of enthusiasm that makes the true villain as much as the ability to speak of oneself in the third person and build death traps.

The very same enthusiasm that created this wonderful villain get-up is running through the whole film, making it one of the most outrageous as well as one of the most entertaining films in the Wallace cycle.

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