It’s Dé·jà Vu All Over Again

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Been there; done that.  Wotta drag.  That’s the feeling you get when there’s nothing new under the sun.  And let’s face it—isn’t that just typical of the reincarnation experience?  We live in a culture that thirsts for the new, the exciting, the not-done-before.  Because that’s where it’s at, my friends, that’s what’s cool and groovy, that’s what makes us cross over that big mountain—the one right over there, sorta to our left, just behind that Arby’s—so we can see what’s new and hip on the other side.  Except…like that bear who also crossed over, all you’re gonna see is…the mountain’s other side…

It’s times like that when you wonder if the whole metempsychosis thing might be a wee overrated…  

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Reincarnation is not new to the movies (is there anything new to the movies…).  Having been and done never did stop the cinema machine from being and doing again.  Check out this Wikipedia article listing all these reincarnation movies, including such golden-age Hollywood numbers as I Married a Witch, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and the 1932 version of The Mummy.  As a side note, I might point out that these films have themselves been reincarnated a number of times, as various Hollywood remakes, sequels, redos, and even TV shows (so old, it’s new…).

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In the mid-1950s, however, Reincarnation was a cottage industry in low-budget American cinema.  You can trace it to the 1956 publication of an improbable bestseller, The Search For Bridey Murphy.  Written by Morey Bernstein, a businessman and amateur hypnotist, the book was a record of his hypnosis sessions with a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe, who dug up from her rambling unconscious a purported past existence as a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy.  (I haven’t read the book, but you can listen to a recording of some of Bernstein’s sessions here; Tighe is given the pseudonym “Ruth Simmons.”)  The book’s revelations of presumed reincarnation were debunked after publication, Tighe’s past-life memories attributed to a form of cryptomnesia.  So that, as far as transmigration was concerned, was that.

Or was it?

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Debunking has never stopped Hollywood (nothing new in that).  Following publication of Bernstein’s book, a Bridey Murphey craze started (per Wikipedia, “come as you were” parties became all the rage).  And this craze also took in the movies.  But what makes these second-half-1950s second-life films different from other reincarnation-themed films is that these movies were obviously inspired by—even feeding off of—what might be called the Bridey Murphy Medico-Psychological Discourse:  In which hypnotic techniques that plunge into an individual’s psyche and drag up seemingly unexplainable memories thus ‘prove’ the truth of past-life experience.  Indeed, the memories in and of themselves furnished the proof.  And that discourse includes the first film on my list, which just happens to be…

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The Search for Bridey Murphy  (1956)BMpstr

Based directly on Bernstein’s opus, Bridey Murphy (the Movie) starts with a title card assuring us that the film’s recreated hypnosis sessions are authentic transcriptions of ‘Ruth Simmons’s’ own mesmeric sessions.  We’re thus assured that we’re seeing solid, incontrovertible truth (although the use of Tighe’s pseudonym might raise a wrinkle of doubt here).  Though what that ‘truth’ is, is not declared outright (that Simmons/Tighe was hypnotized?  Is anyone doubting that?).  Still, it all seems to fit in with the movie’s big, solemn Reincarnation theme.  There’s even a separate cast listing in the credits for “The Past”—the film takes this so seriously—along with the credits for its stars Louis Hayward, Teresa Wright, and Kenneth Tobey, who, we assume, still exist in the present.

2020-10-24 (1)The film is most interesting when it’s playing with meta-levels of ‘reality’ to present its story’s truth.  The first scene has Louis Hayward standing on what’s meant to be the set of the film you’re now watching (note the stage unit labelled “The Search For Bridey Murphy”), as he breaks the fourth wall and explains to the camera (and, presumably, to us) that this film portrays real people and events, but with changed names and “professional actors” (“for obvious reasons”).  Fair enough, I thought.  The filmmakers are going Brecht here, drawing our attention to the difference between ‘real’ reality and cinema reality.  They’re stripping away the seeming reality of film by exposing its ability to simulate reality, letting us see the constructed sets, camera work, and lighting.  So that (I’m assuming) we’ll be persuaded, paradoxically, of the ‘reality’ of the story being presented to us. 

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But then it starts to get weird.  Because professional actor Hayward introduces himself to us not as an actor but as “a conventional businessman…in the town of Pueblo, Colorado,” which is what author Morey Bernstein was.  The film upends its meta-pretentions of ‘the real’ by having Hayward (then a well-known actor) pretend to be the actual Bernstein introducing the film, thus eliding film reality with ‘real’ reality.  Note how Hayward walks from the film’s bare intro ‘set’ onto its constructed story ‘set,’ representing Bernstein’s living room, where he immediately enters the plot by answering the set’s telephone.  We’re less than three minutes into the film and it’s given us a compressed master’s thesis on factual versus constructed truth, real life and the performance of it, and the unpeeling of cinematic contrivance, so as to set up audiences to accept the film’s presented discourse—that what we’re seeing ‘really’ happened this way.

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2020-10-24 (9)Well, I’m not doubting that ‘Ruth Simmons’ was really hypnotized.  It’s just that…all this meta set-up is (really) a waste of time.  Because the unhappy fact is that hypnosis sessions, no matter how ‘real-ly’ presented, are boring as hell to watch, and no amount of denuding or layering on of cinematic realism is gonna make them gripping drama.

Much of the film is watching Teresa Wright, quite charming as ‘Ruth Simmons,’ lie on a couch, eyes closed, ‘recalling’ her past life in a fetching Irish accent.  Pleasant as Wright is, there’s only so much you can watch of the lady on a sofa.  The film also recreates Bridey/Ruth’s ‘recollections’ of early-1800s rural Ireland, but these scenes lack drama and add nothing to its premise.  By the time you get to Bridey’s afterlife memories—shots of starry, static skies—the film’s about as exciting to watch as dripping grease.  Despite the movie’s strenuous attempts to persuade us of its truthfulness, my sense in watching it was a strange sense of doubling:  Its scenes of a woman undergoing hypnosis are also of an actress playacting at regression.  Thus, though the movie tries to present the reality of hypnosis, it also makes us question it—since it’s only acting we’re witnessing, after all.

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2020-10-24 (17)The sense you do get from the film, of which it does not seem conscious, is a disturbing one:  How Bernstein, becoming obsessed with his persistent hypnotic sessions, is exploiting Ruth/Virginia for his own, unstated purposes.  Just his meticulous recording of his subject’s recollections indicates he knew he’d gotten hold of something hot and meant to take advantage of it.  When Ruth’s husband finally stops the sittings, I found myself in agreement; they’ve gotten way too manipulative and creepy.  Had the film focused on that subtext instead of its couch views, it might have gotten to something of the ‘real’ reality underlying the whole Bridey Murphy brouhaha.  And that might have been a real story.

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You can watch the complete film of The Search for Bridey Murphy on YouTube here.  It’s a real couch-potato experience.


I’ve Lived Before  (1956)

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Unlike the couch-bound Bridey Murphy film, I’ve Lived Before tries, at least at its start, for some action.  Its first scene is a World War One-era dogfight, with one plane shot and spiraling down, the movie credits flashing onto its burning fuselage.  We then jump to 1931 and to an air show featuring WW1 airplanes.  A thirteen-year-old boy sneaks into one of the vintage planes and manages to take off, fly, and land it successfully.  When asked by his worried parents why he did this, he replies he “had to.”  And when asked how he was able to fly the thing, the boy answers:  “I just knew how to do it, like I done it before.”

ILB1We jump ahead again, by some twenty years, and watch the now-grown child, embodied in handsome Jock Mahoney, as a commercial airline pilot taking off on a routine flight.  He’s disturbed when he sees one of the passengers, a middle-aged woman he’s sure he’s never laid eyes on.  So upset is he by the sight of this woman that, in the middle of landing his plane, he flashes back to that 1918 dogfight and nearly crash-dives his current vehicle.  When he wakes up in a hospital, he claims to be someone else entirely—the pilot who had died in that 1918 crash.  Mahoney then dedicates himself to finding out the truth of himself—even to seeking out, for questioning, his mysterious passenger.

2020-10-25 (7)2020-10-25 (11)Although it lacks Bridey Murphy’s assurances of yes-this-reincarnation-stuff-is-really-real, I’ve Lived Before is as solemn, talky, and slow-moving as the earlier film.  Something about reincarnation brought out a ponderous strain in these 1950s filmmakers.  Much of the story focuses on the hospitalized Mahoney’s anguish in trying to figure out who he is and why he feels he’s another person inside.  It’s to Mahoney’s credit that he makes his character surprisingly affecting; his demeanor, solid, serious, and quite sad, compels you to accept this man’s dilemma of believing he’s someone else, torn between two lives, two sets of memories, two identities.  Sure, the film was cashing in on a then-current cultural craze, but, unlike the Bridey Murphy film, you don’t get from it that queasy, exploitative feel.  You may not accept its reincarnation premise, but you’re not rolling your eyes either.

2020-10-25 (13)What elevates the film however, is the great Ann Harding as Mahoney’s passenger, who, it turns out, was the dead pilot’s fiancée.  I’m a BIG Ann Harding fan (I devoted a post entirely to her here), so forgive me if I stop to gush.  Harding’s acting isn’t showy or overt; instead, her dignity and calm, her conveyance of suppressed pain from memories stirred unwillingly to life by Mahoney’s brute plundering of her feelings, raises this film above B-level topicality.  She has a beautiful moment when she exclaims to Mahoney how deeply she had loved her pilot:  “…I have lived with the memory of that love for over thirty years,” she says, and Harding captures those thirty years of mourning in less than thirty seconds of film time.  And when she accepts who Mahoney might just be—“I can believe that Peter’s soul is not destroyed with him in that field in France”—the glow on Harding’s face makes that line almost transcendent, a quiet expression of how her love has lasted beyond death.  It’s a lovely performance, and if reincarnation does ever prove real, I can only hope that it will bring back to us artistry like this.

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You can watch the complete film of I’ve Lived Before on YouTube here.


The Undead  (1957)

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Did I say that 1950s reincarnation films were stuffy and solemn?  I was reckoning without Roger Corman.  The Undead, with an introduction by the Devil himself, no less, lands us squarely in Corman schlock territory.  And the film’s following, post-demonic scene, beginning the story proper, lays it on:  A hooker sauntering through a bank of fog pauses to accept a cigarette light from an unseen john; she then smilingly glides off with the hand that grabs hers to lead her offscreen.  Pretty racy stuff for 1957, and a great way to start a movie.  We’re right away hooked (pardon the pun); it may be schlock, but it’s schlock done by a guy who (unlike the Bridey Murphy folks) knows how to reel us in.

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Corman’s film picks up on the psychological-hypnosis theme in that the prostitute, Diana, had been roped in by two ‘scientists’ to participate in a past-life regression experiment.  Turns out Diana’s recalled past beats Ruth Simmons’ by several centuries and geographical shifts:  She ‘returns’ to the Middle Ages where she finds herself in prison for witchcraft (“How fares the witch?” is her jailer’s jolly greeting) and facing beheading in the morning.  Escaping from jail, Diana stumbles into a rambling, incoherent plot, in which she runs around through a lot more fog looking for help.  In the meantime, gorgeously witchy Allison Hayes stirs up trouble with a figure bountiful enough to inhabit any number of past lives, while one of the hypnotists (the more annoying of the two) somehow travels back in time to join Diana in her recollected life.  And then the Devil jumps in to join the fun…

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The film is wonderfully cheesy looking, its sets and attire right out of an earnestly done high school production, the kind where the mothers get together to stitch scarves and blankets into costumes, and students paint carboard and balsa wood for scenery.  It’s also replete with fog and dank lighting, apparently to hide the film’s shooting location in an abandoned supermarket.  Allison’s gown shows as much of Allison as it can (either that, or they were running short on blankets), Satan is a dimestore Mephistopheles, with pitchfork and fake beard, and a brief dance in a graveyard (the dancers showing a lot of leg), comes across like Ed Wood aspiring to Martha Graham.  Is your interest piqued yet?

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The Undead is no unheralded B-gem; it’s schlock done to a reincarnation vibe, its box-office hook a then-hot subject, along with luscious servings of Hayesian flesh.  There are the usual plot drags, added to fill out the time; by film’s end a character has to recount the story in case spectators may have forgotten what’s been going on.  However, Corman’s direction is swift and efficient, and the dialogue is weirdly fascinating (supposedly the scenarists wrote the first draft in iambic pentameter).  Maybe the film is “absurdly ambitious,” as Joe Dante says, but I’m not complaining.  The actors are mostly excellent, especially Pamela Duncan as Diana and the fabulous Hayes (whom I earlier praised here).  You may think the film silly (and it is), but you won’t be bored.  And if it’s ever reincarnated into another film, well…I just might watch it…again.

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You can watch The Undead on YouTube here.  Devilishly fun!


The She-Creature  (1956)

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The She-Creature—now that’s a suggestive title.  Evoking such engrained, misogynist attitudes as the monstrous, destructive female body, and the fear, disgust, and horror against women—I mean, a CREATURE, my dears!  So fraught are the connotations here.

And then there’s that reincarnation angle…

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None of these feminist talking points is at play here, however.  What we we get is Dr. Carlo Lombardi—we know that’s his name because he announces it in soundtrack voiceover—who fancies himself a Summoner of Lovecraftian Monsters (when not plying his regular trade as a tinhorn carnival hypnotist).  He’s gloating here because he’s just called up one whopper of a Cthulhuian beast from those roiling ocean waves seen just behind him.  “She comes from the beginning of time, huge and indestructible,” Lombardi boasts, “and I’m the force that gives her life!”  Which means only one thing for us schlock-cinema connoisseurs:  Sooner or later a guy in a rubber monster suit is gonna show up.

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Lombardi may ooze fakeness the way a skunk emits odor, but he’s got ambitions, both monetary and amatory, that go well beyond sideshow mesmerism.  And he thinks he’s hit the jackpot with Andrea, a pliable young woman who dredges up past-life memories like a juiced-up fishing trawl hauling shrimp whenever Lombardi puts her under.  Talk about memory arousal.  One of Andrea’s past lives happens to be the title sea fiend—an atavistic manifestation of her unconscious, who plods ashore whenever she’s in a trance to hit the rampage trail, ripping apart all the cardboard and balsa wood sets on view.  All to Lombardi’s benefit, since he figures his predictions of the Creature’s resurgences are gonna earn him a lotta dough. 

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Ah, but dough isn’t enough for Dr. Carlo Lombardi.  He also wants Andrea, only she won’t give him one of those fake eyelashes drooping off her real ones (as seen in closeups); at least if she had a say in the matter.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, because Andrea is in thrall to Lombardi’s hypnotic powers, going under like the Titanic whenever he waggles his own eyelashes at her.  Something really disturbing is dredged up in these mesmerism scenes, regarding female subjugation and male dominance (“You’ll never leave me, you can’t,” Lombardi sneers), and how a man preys on a woman’s induced helplessness.  In no way does the movie explore such themes, nor does it examine hypnotic technique as a factor in male control of the female body; but they’re too obvious to ignore whenever Lombardi, placing Andrea in a trance, crawls over her torso as if about to ravish her.  Such moments are shuddery to watch; and it’s then you realize the wrong pronoun is in the title.

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Otherwise, the film is pure schlock, ripe for mockery (as done in a memorable, and highly recommended, MST3K episode), filled with such unforgettable images as monster-maker Paul Blaisdell’s full-breasted She-Creature suit.  The film was itself a bit of a reincarnation for several golden-age Hollywood actors, including Tom Conway, Frieda Inescourt, El Brendel (who didn’t improve with age), and Chester Morris as Lombardi.  They had all seen better days, especially Morris, who looks glum throughout, as if he’d been dredging up memories of his own heady, A-list days at MGM, co-starring with the likes of Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow (instead of rubber suits).  Yet Morris brings an old-time, Hollywood-star intensity to his role; it makes his own scenes, schlocky or not, genuinely unnerving.  Morris’s acting may look hokey by today’s naturalist standards, but he was a real pro, with enough respect for audiences to dig into a part and give it his all.  That’s a quality worthy of reincarnation, in any era, at any time. 

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You can watch The She-Creature (sans spaceship and robots) on YouTube here.  An interesting retro note:  In 1956 The She-Creature was released on a double bill with another Corman magnum opus, It Conquered The World (which I wrote about here).  So, in the interest of reincarnating a genuine 1950s schlockfest experience, here’s also the YouTube link to It Conquered The World — recreate your own come-as-you-were Lovecraftian Monster Mash!

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