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Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Mesmerists (originally published 2/99)

Judging by the widespread use of psychotropic substances in our society, it would seem that many of us find the prospect of yielding control attractive. The diminishment of one's own self control may seem appealingly liberating to some, but what if those same people were asked to turn over their self control to someone else, instead of just suppressing their own inhibitions? For most of us I suspect that such a prospect would be disquieting at best, if not outright terrifying.

As we saw last week, the subject of hypnosis can successfully be played for laughs by filmmakers, as it is in the current release, "Office Space." Even more common, however, are movies that focus on the dark side of mind control. Here are some cautionary tales of hypnotism's sinister aspect to look for on home video.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1919). The inspiration for a great many movie mesmerists came from this seminal example of German Expressionist filmmaking. Werner Krauss stars as a carnival sideshow operator who exhibits a sleeping man, whom he claims to have in a perpetual state of trance. As it turns out, he occasionally wakes his somnambulistic friend to send him out by night to commit murders. One word of warning: although this early silent classic represents a milestone in cinema history, it is a difficult film for modern audiences to sit through. The deliberately unnatural set design, makeup, and acting styles fly in the face of the naturalistic filmmaking that has become the norm in recent decades. If your tolerance for unfamiliar approaches to cinematic storytelling is low, approach this one with care.

"Svengali" (1931). Some characters are so memorable that their very names enter the language as a cultural shorthand. When we wish to describe a miserly skinflint, we call him a "Scrooge." Similarly, if we want to accuse someone of exercising an outrageous degree of control over the life of another, we call him a "Svengali." This unsavory character has been portrayed many times onscreen, but never better than John Barrymore's tour-de-force in this disturbing little drama. Marian Marsh co-stars as Trilby, the young woman who becomes an international singing star under his sinister influence.

"The Frozen Ghost" (1945). During the forties, Lon Chaney Jr. starred in a series of B-pictures on supernatural subjects. The films were inspired by a popular radio series called "The Inner Sanctum." In this one, Chaney plays a hypnotist who appears onstage as "Gregor the Great." One fateful night, a man whom Gregor has hypnotized dies while under his spell. Convinced that he is guilty of murder, Gregor goes into hiding, but the mysterious deaths continue. Universal Home Video has recently released all six "Inner Sanctum" films, two to a tape. "The Frozen Ghost" appears on a tape with "Weird Woman."

"Horrors of the Black Museum" (1959). From American International Pictures, home of some of the most entertaining low budget exploitation pictures ever released, comes this grisly little exercise in hypnotic horror. Michael Gough, better known these days as Alfred the butler in the Batman movies, plays a London crime reporter who gets his scoops by masterminding the very crimes he reports. It seems that he has been sending his young assistant out in a state of hypnosis to commit the crimes that will fill his next column. The Roan Group has released a letterboxed version of the film complete with an amusing prologue by "Emile Franchel - Registered Psychologist." Mr. Franchel delivers a thirteen minute mini-lecture on the subject of hypnosis, demonstrating the power of suggestion by hypnotizing the audience directly.

Although it all seems a bit silly when Emile Franchel looks you right in the eye from the screen and tries to put you under, there is a sense in which all filmmakers do attempt to hypnotize their viewers. Instead of having you concentrate on a shiny object, they focus your attention on dancing shadows on a screen in a darkened room. In this state of partial sensory deprivation, you are exposed to specific visual stimuli and expected to react emotionally. The fact that we do laugh and cry and occasionally scream in response to these moving shadows is an eloquent testimony to the hypnotic capacity of the silver screen. We can only hope that the best filmmakers, the ones who wield that power most potently, will always use it wisely.

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