A Masque of Madness
By SHERIF AWAD
Experimental cinema is an artistic form relieving both the visual arts and cinema. Its origins came from European avant-garde movements of the twenties and also from some US non-profit organizations like The Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York, and similar cooperatives throughout nations of the world.
At the Karlovy Vary Festival that came to a close last week, we discovered the latest entries in experimental cinema coming from Austrian artist and filmmaker Norbert Pfaffenbichler who created this new film he called A Masque of Madness in which he follows the career of Boris Karloff, the iconic actor who worked with Douglas Sirk and Peter Bogdanovich, but who also appeared in second-rate TV shows. Pfaffenbichler ignores distinctions between high and low art, drawing Karloff’s movies into thematically related, yet entirely unexpected interactions that, in the final result, interpret film history more innovatively than period encyclopedias. Karloff’s career is more than simply the story of an individual. It also documents technological development and changing approaches to various topics and taboos. The picture makes no attempt to provide an exhaustive exegesis of the artist’s work, instead highlighting points of commonality as it jumps haphazardly through time by editing between black & white and colored material, older and newer, English speaking and French dubbed versions, to create new scenes involving the characters played by Karloff interacting and attacking each others.
In A Messenger from the Shadows (starring Lon Chaney), Pfaffenbichler’s re-montage follows a similar path through five motion picture decades of Karloff—as supporting actor in silent films, a star in talking pictures, and as a television host. Karloff never managed to escape his most iconic creation, even when he sometimes played the good guy. Karloff was recognized as one of the true icons of horror cinema. He was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell, England. He was educated at London University in anticipation that he would pursue a diplomatic career. Instead, he immigrated to Canada in 1909 and joined a touring company based out of Ontario and adopted the stage name "Boris Karloff." He toured back and forth across the US for over ten years in a variety of low-budget shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood with very little money to his name. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff secured occasional acting work in the fledgling silent film industry in such pictures as The Deadlier Sex (1920), Omar the Tentmaker (1922), Dynamite Dan (1924) and Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), in addition to a handful of serials (the majority of which sadly haven't survived). Karloff supplemented his meager film income by working as a truck driver in Los Angeles, which allowed him enough time off to continue to pursue acting roles.
His big break came in 1931 when he was cast as "the monster" in the Universal production of Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale. The aura of mystery surrounding Karloff was highlighted in the opening credits, as he was listed as simply "?". The film was a commercial and critical success for Universal, and Karloff was instantly established as a hot property in Hollywood. He quickly appeared in several other sinister roles, including Scarface (1932) (filmed before Frankenstein), the black-humored The Old Dark House (1932), as the namesake Oriental villain of the Sax Rohmer novels in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), as undead Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy (1932) and the misguided Prof. Morlant in The Ghoul (1933). All of these films and more are revisited in Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s experimental homage.
During the 1950s, Karloff was a regular guest on many high-profile TV shows including The Milton Berle Show (1948) and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show (1956), to name but a few. On Broadway, he appeared as the murderous Brewster brother in Arsenic and Old Lace. His career experienced something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to hosting the TV anthology series Thriller (1960) and indie director Roger Corman, with Karloff contributing wonderful performances in The Raven (1963), The Terror (1963), the ultra-eerie Black Sabbath (1963) and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Monster of Terror (1965). Karloff's last great role was as an aging horror movie star confronting a modern-day sniper in the Peter Bogdanovich film Targets (1968) before passing away on February 2, 1969. As for our Austrian director Norbert Pfaffenbichler who revived Karloff for us, he was born 1967, in Steyr, Austria. He is now based in Vienna where he creates art and curates art shows using film, video, installations, sculptures, photographs, collages, and drawings. A Masque of Madness belongs to Pfaffenbichler series Notes on Film where he examines the motion picture world and recasts film history with respect to our fascination for power, iconic faces, and aesthetic violence. He has presented his works at all kinds of shows worldwide, including the Sónar Festival in Barcelona, the film festivals in Rotterdam and Toronto, and the Diagonale in Graz. His previous compilation, A Messenger from the Shadows, in which he focuses on the work of actor Lon Chaney, was also screened at Kalovy Vary Festival 2013.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine ( www.EgyptToday.com ), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia ( http://varietyarabia.com/ ), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website ( http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132 ) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com ).