Diary of a Madman

Days before he is scheduled to be executed, convicted murderer Louis Girot requests a visit from the magistrate who presided over his trial, Simon Cordier. Cordier readily agrees, expecting that Girot’s guilty conscience has provoked him to make a full confession at last; he is disappointed to discover that instead, Girot wants to profess his innocence one last time. Girot insists that he was under the control of an evil spirit that forced him to commit the crimes he stands convicted of; that by executing him, Cordier will have an innocent man’s blood on his hands. Cordier is no more receptive to Girot’s claims of possession than he was during the trial, but as he prepares to leave, he sees a change come over Girot’s face, and the convict suddenly attacks him. Defending himself, Cordier inadvertently kills Girot. The magistrate is shocked at this turn of events, but he was clearly defending himself, and it’s the jailer’s opinion that Cordier has done Girot a favor, sparing him from the guillotine, if not from his death sentence.

In the days to come, Cordier will have much cause to review his final interview with Girot, and to reconsider the convict’s plea. A series of odd incidents rapidly escalates until there can be no doubt: not only was Girot telling the truth about the invisible entity that drove him to commit murder, that entity has now attached itself to the honorable Magistrate Cordier, and is determined to drive him down the same dark path that doomed Girot.

Another Saturday, another Vincent Price movie based on one author’s work, but masquerading under the title of another’s. In this case, Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” is sent out wearing the title of Nikolai Gogol short story. In the filmmakers’ defense, they had every reason to expect audiences might not rush out to see a movie titled “The Horla”, but the title change cuts the number of similarities between source story and movie to a mere two: the antagonist being an invisible creature called The Horla, and the means by which Cordier chooses to make his final stand against it. Otherwise, the movie essentially inverts the story. On the page, we have a series of diary entries by a man who comes to believe that he’s sharing his home with an invisible entity which, aside from upsetting him a bit and making him disinclined to leave home, isn’t really causing trouble. The Horla takes care to avoid confirming the narrator’s suspicions about its existence, and never communicates with him directly. The horror of the story stems from the narrator’s increasingly irrational efforts to escape his unwanted guest, efforts which eventually lead to the deaths of innocents.

By contrast, in the movie, the Horla runs around doing all it can to convince Cordier that it is real, that he is in its power, and that it intends to use him to pave the way for Horlakind to take over the world. (Or some such thing, I wasn’t at all clear about what the Horla really wanted.) After a few of the usual “Could I be sleepwalking or suffering from split personality?” ambiguous indicators of haunting, the Horla begins to openly talk to Cordier and offer other proofs of its presence. The Horla claims it can only possess a man who already has evil in his heart, but it does all the pushing toward evil deeds, and when Cordier resists, it takes over and commits the acts for him. Here’s a sample exchange from the movie, slightly boiled down, but not by much:

Horla: You know that model who posed for your sculpture is a gold-digging whore?
Cordier: That’s unfortunate, but the sculpture is done. I’ll never see her again.
Horla: You should totally kill her for her gold-digging whorishness.
Cordier: Why would I? She doesn’t mean anything to me.
Horla: SHE WILL! I’ll make you fall in love with her and woo her, and once she’s yours, you’ll feel so betrayed by her whorish gold-diggery, you’ll have to kill her! Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Really now, how is that fair? All right, maybe it’s unreasonable of me to expect fair play from an invisible extraterrestrial seeking to supplant mankind on Earth. (Yes! Here we have the story that planted the notion of Cthulhu in the feverish brain of H.P. Lovecraft, who is clearly haunting my RIP experience this year!) So I’ll set that objection aside, along with certain illogicalities in the story-telling (we’re supposedly watching events recorded in Cordier’s diary, but we’re shown several interactions that Cordier has no way of knowing about). The real problem is that, far from being horrifying or thrilling, this movie isn’t even interesting. Because the heart of the story is Cordier’s struggle with an invisible tormentor, we get endless scenes of Vincent Price acting opposite a voice-over and some props strung up on fishing wire. Now, if anyone in the world could carry this off, it would be Vincent, but he’d have to be bringing his A-game, and his heart clearly wasn’t in it. He looks as bored as we feel, and that is simply the death-blow for this movie.

This review is for the Peril on the Screen challenge of RIP V.

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