'A Masque of Madness': SIFF Review

Courtesy of SIFF
Norbert Pfaffenbichler's experimental film history collage reminds us what a magnetic screen presence Boris Karloff was.

Fifty or so years of Boris Karloff films are condensed into an entrancing mashup.

SEATTLE -- A piece of experimental cinema recalling some of Christian Marclay's obsessive compilations of Hollywood moments, Norbert Pfaffenbichler's A Masque of Madness crafts a feature-length work out of clips from the long and varied movie career of Boris Karloff. More conducive to single-sitting viewing than, say, Marclay's 24-hour The Clock, it is a scrappier, less polished but more personal creation. Likely to attract the curious at fests, it has limited commercial appeal; but anyone who can watch it without being moved to dig through the DVD archives and revisit a Karloff gem or two might deserve to have his cinephile card revoked.

Subtitled Notes on Film 06-B, Monologue 02, the unusual work is broken into sections that are each labeled "Chapter One." Themes for each are loosely defined but compelling on an intuitive level: Here, we are treated to an assortment of mad scientists; there, a string of dramatic entrances or scenes involving animals. Clips from different eras are jammed together, and the sources range wildly in quality -- some scenes are even taken from foreign-release prints in which Karloff's voice has been dubbed by another actor, with English subtitles below.

We almost never see another person's face onscreen. Edits are made so that Karloff often appears to be having conversations with different versions of himself -- cuts match up surprisingly well at times -- or enacting more complicated dramas. "I'm a musician ... I'll show you," one character says, and then three musical clips from different films are woven together in a discordant mess that tortures its one-person audience, who is shackled so that he cannot escape the recital.

The listener is Frankenstein's monster, who makes many appearances here but doesn't dominate the film. Other monsters creep through scenes, from Jekyll's nemesis Mr. Hyde to less supernatural villains (one yearns for more of The Mummy's Imhotep), but the actor's most famous creature is an excellent foil in sequences involving more aristocratic, mortal characters. (Though the film incorporates some truly left-field entries in Karloff's filmography, from a role he played in drag to the puppet he voiced in Rankin-Bass' delightful Mad Monster Party, it ignores his role as Dr. Seuss' Grinch.)

The editing is often faster than one might want, plowing through a dozen anonymous B-movies before it lands on a collection of scenes that lend themselves to one of Pfaffenbichler's rhythmically repetitive set pieces. The filmmaker does let his star stretch out once or twice, as when he uses a longish speech from The Black Cat as the soundtrack for scenes of eerie, empty halls. (Bela Lugosi, Karloff's costar in that and several other films, remains a felt but unseen presence.)

The closing credit scroll, which lists not the movies used here but only their directors, reminds us of the array of filmmakers Karloff worked with, including not just those associated with horror, such as James Whale and Jacques Tourneur, but others from John Ford to Douglas Sirk. To that list we can now add an Austrian multimedia artist, whose loving film rescues so many of those collaborations from the scrap heap of genre film history.

Cast: Boris Karloff

Director-Producer-Editor: Norbert Pfaffenbichler

No rating, 78 minutes