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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saturday, April 8, 1972: Cry of the Werewolf (1943) / The Island Monster (1954)





Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  

Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris' son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal - apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter -- also named Marie LaTour -- has inherited her lycanthropy.
 
Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don't match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf....



  Comments: We've seen Cry of the Werewolf a few times on Horror Incorporated, and after its last broadcast I commented that it now seemed permanently lodged in the second-feature slot.  Well, now it's back as the evening's first feature.

Clearly, my track record in predicting the future is right up there with The Amazing Criswell.

To be fair, tonight's movie is paired with the greatly inferior The Island Monster, so I can't fault the Horror Incorporated programmers for pushing this one back up to the top of the bill.

This is a film that holds up pretty well to repeated viewings.  It's not as good as Columbia's previous horror outing, Return of the Vampire, but it has its moments. Nina Foche stands out as Marie LaTour, Gypsy queen and guardian of the secret and deadly art of lycanthropy.

We've noted before that Columbia's take on werewolf lore differs from that of Universal's popular series starring Lon Chaney, Jr.  In Cry of the Werewolf the lycanthropes can change form whenever they wish; and when they do, they fully become wolves, not simply hairy and savage humans. And lycanthropy isn't the curse that was depicted in Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man either; here it's shown to be a hereditary gift that affords great mystical power to those who possess it. So the unconventional werewolf lore makes a pretty refreshing change to what we've seen in horror films up to this point.

What Cry of the Werewolf lacks is a strong protagonist.  Dr. Morris dies quickly, leaving his son Bob and girlfriend Elsa as the protagonists and the chief enemies of Marie LaTour.  Unfortunately, Bob (played by Stephen Crane, whose most famous role -- husband to Lana Turner -- was a brief one) is such a sad-sack character that he makes no impression whatsoever, and Elsa (played by the charming Osa Massen) is stuck in such a thinly written part that making an impression isn't really an option (her main function is to stare lovingly at Bob -- a challenge for any actress, it would seem).

John Abbott, who played ill-fated tour guide Peter Althius, was a sturdy character actor with a dignified bearing and Shakespearean cadence. He's not particularly well-used here, but at least it's good to see him working. He was one of those performers who were ubiquitous on 60's television, instantly recognizable even if you didn't know his name, doing guest shots on Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, Flipper, I Spy, Get Smart, Star Trek, The Man From UNCLE, and many others.






The Island Monster






Synopsis: Italian police detective Mario Andreani (Renato Vicario) is assigned to an interdiction effort on the island of Ischia, a fashionable tourist spot identified by the police as a hub of drug trafficking. Andreani's wife Giulia (Jole Fierro) is the jealous type, and worries that the island's surplus of wealthy and attractive women will lead her husband astray.

Despite her misgivings, Mario seems quite devoted to his wife and his young daughter Fiorella. Even so, the island's police chief tells Mario that the most promising informant on the island is the beautiful lounge singer Gloria (Franca Marzi), and that since Andreani is such a handsome galoot, he should have an easy time seducing her and gaining her confidence.

Andreani's task force carries out a number of successful raids against the local drug cartel. The cartel's head,  Don Gaetano (Boris Karloff) decides that he's been inconvenienced long enough.  Using his cover as a wealthy philanthropist who runs a free hospital for sick children, he befriends Andreani and his wife, learning their habits as well as their weaknesses.  One night, while Andreani is out on a raid, Giulia receives an anonymous phone call.  Her husband, the caller says, is at a local night club with another woman.  Alarmed,  Giulia goes to the nightclub, leaving her daughter asleep in bed.

The moment she leaves the house, Don Gaetano enters and kidnaps the child.  Giulia, finding no sign of her husband at the nightclub, returns home and is stunned to discover that Fiorella is missing.

Soon a representative from the cartel calls, demanding that Andreani resign from the task force.  If he doesn't comply, his daughter will be killed.  As Andreani struggles to do the right thing, Gaetano stays close to the family, offering them his friendship and his counsel....




Comments: While The Island Monster's title strongly suggests a horror film,  it actually has no horror elements whatsoever; it's a crime melodrama that comes by way of Italy.  This opus has very meager production values and some truly dreadful English dubbing (the voice of the little girl Fiorella is done by an adult -- while this isn't unusual in a dubbed movie, the voice used is astonishingly bad and would have fooled no one). The dubbing here is so poor it makes the frequently-mocked work done in Japanese monster movies look elegant by comparison.

But even worse than the dubbing are the dreadful gaps in logic.  Italian genre films are often indifferent to absurdities and plot holes, and this one is no exception.

For example, we're told that Don Gaetano is a fiendishly clever drug kingpin (he maintains a front as a beloved local philanthropist) yet he hatches a hare-brained  scheme to kidnap Andreani's daughter, with the idea that this will somehow force Andreani to step down as the head of the drug task force.  Now, I'm not a criminal mastermind, but even I can see the problem with this plan: kidnapping a cop's daughter will make the police more interested in finding you, not less interested. 

After all, the kidnapper's power is quite limited because he ultimately has to do one of two things: kill the victim or let her go.  Whichever choice he makes, the child will be out of his control within a matter of days, and once that happens the cops will come down on him like a ton of bricks.  And even if Andreani steps down from the task force permanently (which is by no means certain), the cops could just appoint someone else.

It's possible, of course, that Andreani is just such a superstar crime-buster that he can't be replaced.  This seems unlikely, but if it were true, there would better options to defeat him -  bribery, for instance,  or blackmail. These tactics would leave the police department's golden boy in place, and the police would therefore believe that everything was being done that could be done -- even if Don Gaetano's goons slipped through his fingers on a fairly regular basis. But really, any other tactic - including killing Andreani in order to get him out of the way - would be better than the one that Don Gaetano chooses.

Even daffier is Don Gaetano's decision to kidnap Fiorella himself.  Doesn't this guy have henchmen? Is he so much of a micro manager that he can't leave the kidnappings to the specialists? Does he drive the getaway cars too? 

I don't understand why criminals in the movies are such nitwits.  But then they aren't so clever in real life either, are they? There should probably be a school or something where criminals can get the training they need to do a professional job and not mess everything up.  I'd start one myself, but I have a pretty full plate already.  Maybe I'll start work on that  idea when I'm done with the Horror Incorporated Project.





Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saturday, April 1, 1972 (Midnight): The Ghost Ship (1943) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)



Synopsis: Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the new 3rd officer on the merchant ship Altair. Merriam meets the captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix) and is surprised to find that Stone had asked for Merriam to be assigned to him specially. Stone tells him that Merriam's background is much like his own; they were both orphans, and both men were therefore driven to succeed and make lives of their own. As Merriam is getting ready to leave the captain's cabin he sees a moth hovering around a light. He is going to swat it, but the captain stops him. "You have no right to kill that moth," the captain says gently. "Its safety doesn't depend on you."

As the voyage begins, Merriam gets to know the crew: the no-nonsense first officer Bowns; radioman "Sparks" Winslow, and Finn, a mute whose gnarled face seems unwelcoming. Stone seems to treat Merriam like the son he never had, and Merriam seems grateful for his fatherly attitude.

But almost immediately there are troubling things about Captain Stone. He demands order and discipline, but is quick to deflect blame when his orders put member of his crew in danger. Even so,  the crew is very loyal to him, and they are careful not to cross him.

But one day seaman Louie Parker takes an insolent tone with Stone; though Stone is clearly angry, he takes no action.  But later, when the crew is stowing the anchor chain below decks, Louie is given the task of gathering the chain in the hold so that it doesn't become tangled.  This is dangerous work; the heavy chain slides down into the hold quickly and Louie must manipulate it with a spar as it descends to ensure that it doesn't pile up in one part of the hold .  Then he must exit the narrow interior hatchway while the chain is still snaking down into the hold.


Captain Stone, walking down the corridor adjacent to the hatch, casually shuts it as he passes.  Parker soon discovers he can't get out, and shouts for the men above to stop lowering the chain.  But they can't hear him and Parker is soon crushed to death under the chain's weight.


Merriam discovers the body, and notes that the hatch had been dogged from the outside. Stone seems to be entirely indifferent to Louie's death.  The man was insolent and a loudmouth, the captain tells him. There was no place on board the ship for him.  To Merriam, it's clear that Captain Stone closed the hatch deliberately, knowing what would happen. And while the Captain doesn't admit it, he doesn't deny it either, and he makes clear the meaning of his comment about the moth.  The Captain sees himself responsible for the safety of his crew; and because those lives are his responsibility, he is free to take their lives as he chooses. This lesson, he makes clear, is something Merriam must learn if he is to command a ship of his own one day.

The ship arrives in port, and Merriam goes directly to the office of the shipping line. He tells the line representatives about his suspicions regarding Captain Stone. Reluctantly, the administrators call an inquest.  Merriam tells what he knows, but one by one, the crew of the Altair go out of their way to vouch for the Captain's sanity and even-handedness.  Stone is quickly exonerated.

Despondent, Merriam leaves the inquest knowing he will need to find a new job.  But later that evening he is drawn into a fight and hit over the head.  He awakens on board the Altair, now far out to sea.  He quickly realizes that the Captain arranged for him to be brought back -- and is planning to kill him....



Comments: Val Lewton's relationship with RKO studios was an interesting one.  The studio brass seemed to leave him alone for the most part, but certain elements of his movies were imposed upon him with a heavy hand.  For example, nearly all of Lewton's films began with a lurid title the studio handed off to him: Cat People started that way, as did  I Walked With a Zombie and (so it is claimed) did tonight's feature, The Ghost Ship. 

This gambit actually worked pretty well.  Lewton could complain about the catch-penny titles, but he was actually quite masterful at thinking his way out of them, redirecting what he thought the studio wanted into stories that were far more intelligent and lyrical than anyone could have imagined. So in a way the studio did him a favor by forcing him to improvise, to take what was clearly a dismal or shopworn concept and turn it inside out.

Tonight's feature goes quite far afield from what one might expect from a movie called The Ghost Ship.  There is a ship, and the movie is very moody and atmospheric, as you'd expect from Val Lewton. But the horror elements are surprisingly muted; there isn't a ghost in sight.  In fact, there is no supernatural subtext whatsoever. Instead, we have is a rumination about the meaning of leadership and responsibility. One of the larger questions the movie tackles -- via the characters of Captain Stone and his younger reflection character Merriam -- is how a man reconciles himself with the difficulties and disappointments of life without losing faith in his fellow man.

Stone is a man who has lost his way, though he doesn't realize it. He and the married Ellen clearly had spent years trying to find a way to be together.  When she finally manages to divorce her husband, she expects Stone to willingly drop his life at sea to be with her.  But she doesn't realize that she made him wait too long; the ship has become his entire universe, and controlling that universe has become his obsession.

Stone's disappointment in Merriam is so much the greater because of the father-son relationship he imagined, and it is enough for him to cause him to snap - he becomes reckless, first in denying to Ellen via radiogram that Merriam is aboard; then in the murder of Sparks; and finally in his determination to filet Merriam while he's hogtied to his bunk. He has come to believe what he told Merriam about the crew -- that they are just cattle for him to herd. 

Fortunately for Merriam his secret benefactor proves to be the mute Finn, whose imposed silence allows him the ability to carefully observe everything on board ship. He takes it upon himself to safeguard not just Merriam, but his innocence as well.  "The boy is safe," Finn narrates near the end of the picture.  "His faith in humanity is preserved." The device of having a mute character narrate the film is a jarring one at first, and it's used rather haphazardly, but it proves to be a good role for Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs. Veteran actor Richard Dix is also quite effective as the seemingly gentle but ultimately homicidal ship's captain. Edith Barrett has perhaps the most difficult role as Ellen, who must haul buckets of sunshine to a couple of pretty dreary fellows. It's one of the most interesting roles in this less-than-stellar Lewton effort.







Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.


His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us. Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort. He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Park) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.





Comments: This is the first madcap comedy we've seen on Horror Incorporated, and it's a movie so tethered to one locale that it looks as though it was originally written for the stage -- even though the credits indicate that it's an original screenplay.

And while I knew I'd never seen it before, why did The Boogie Man Will Get You seem so familiar to me?

I finally figured it out, and no doubt you have already done so as well: The Boogie Man Will Get You is a pretty blatant knockoff of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a popular Broadway show at the time. Karloff himself had originated the role of Jonathan Brewster on stage the previous year. Instead of two dotty but lovable aunts collecting dead bodies in the cellar of their boarding house, we have a dotty but lovable scientist storing dead bodies in the cellar of his inn.

As you've probably already guessed, this is about as much a horror movie as Arsenic and Old Lace was. It seems to have slipped into the Son of Shock! package more or less by accident (perhaps the title and the presence of Karloff and Peter Lorre convinced someone at Screen Gems that it was a horror flick).

So we must shrug for the moment and go along with it.

As a horror movie, it's obviously a non-starter. As a comedy -- well, it certainly makes you appreciate Arsenic and Old Lace, in much the same way that watching Starcrash improves your opinion of George Lucas' talent as a filmmaker.

Karloff is perfectly serviceable in the absent-minded professor role, and Peter Lorre in particular seems to be enjoying himself as the kooky and amoral Dr. Lorencz. Retired boxer "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom gets in some laughs as an unsuccessful cosmetics salesman.
And Jeff Donnell (here credited as "Miss Jeff Donnell") shines in her too-brief screen appearance. Considered too plain-looking to be a romantic lead (at least by Hollywood standards), her career sputtered out too quickly.... though I suspect any agent who let her use the stage name "Jeff" might not have been acting in her best interests.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saturday, April 1, 1972 (Noon): Monster A Go Go (1965) / Hangover Square (1945)


Synopsis: A Mercury space capsule returns to Earth far off course, landing in the Illinois countryside. Dr. Chris Manning (Peter Thompson) and Dr. Steve Connors (Philip Morton) are dispatched by NASA to recover the vehicle.  They find that it was badly damaged upon re-entry and contaminated with massive amounts of radiation.  The astronaut, Frank Douglas (Henry Hite), is nowhere to be found.

Before long, reports of a ten-foot tall creature wearing a silver suit begin to filter in.  The thing is wandering across the countryside, leaving bodies and destruction in its wake.  Manning and Brent quickly realize that this is Douglas, irradiated and apparently mutated into some kind of monster.

Dr. Conrad Logan and his assistant, Dr. Nora Kramer (Losi Brooks), try to work out what has happened to Douglas. They determine that the emits a field of deadly radiation around it that extends out about 10 feet. The field is gradually growing, and if the creature isn't stopped the field will grow to hundreds of feet in diameter. This is especially troubling since the monster is making its way toward Chicago.

Dr. Logan manages to capture the creature and gives it doses of an anti-radiation drug. But it breaks loose and heads toward the city. 

The civil defense forces manage to corner the thing in the sewers of Chicago.  They pursue it, but what can they do, even if they manage to corner it?




Comments: The story behind this odd little movie is far more interesting than the movie itself.  In 1961 would-be director Bill Rebane shot about 40 minutes' worth of footage with the intent of making a Quatermass-esque horror movie about a crashed space capsule and its sole inhabitant, a man who has mutated into a 10-foot tall radioactive monster.  The monster goes on a rampage through the countryside, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. A gaggle of Air Force investigators try to track it down.

This scenario isn't terribly original, but it's workable enough for a low-budget horror flick.
Unfortunately, what Rebane put in the can was awful. He simply had no talent as a filmmaker, on any level: no concept of how to tell a story or build narrative tension, no ear for dialogue, no talent for coaxing good performances out of actors, no knack for composition, no skill at editing. The scenes he filmed are poorly staged master shots, loaded down with dull and excruciating dialogue. Every scene is slack, with little at stake and nothing to propel the narrative forward. Eventually Rebane ran out of money and the project was abandoned.

A few years later cult director Herschell Gordon Lewis came on the scene. Lewis didn't have much more talent than Rebane, but he did possess a keen eye for exploitation.  He also knew how to economize. Lewis needed another feature to fill out a double bill with his hillbilly drive-in flick Moonshine Mountain.  He bought Rebane's footage, shot some new scenes with gyrating teenagers, added his own over-the-top narration and rock-n-roll-flavored soundtrack, and managed to cobble together an almost-70-minute feature that he titled Monster a Go Go (the title doesn't really fit the movie, but I bet it looked good on a drive-in marquee).




Lewis was a successful ad man who had produced a number of schlocky but profitable drive-in movies, stuff like 2000 Maniacs (1964),  Blood Feast (1963) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). He also produced nudies early in his career, and later made soft-core exploitation fare such as Linda and Abiline (1969) and The Ecstasies of Women (1969).

There was little chance that Rebane's footage could be turned into anything entertaining, but Lewis makes a fair effort, adding some T and A scenes as various partying teenagers wander off into the woods and get cooked by the monster. He also shot an ending that made good use of Civil Defense emergency vehicles, though it doesn't add much in the way of suspense.

Is Monster a Go Go a bad movie? Yes. Thanks for asking. Is it unwatchable? No, but it's much more of a slog than perennial "worst movie of all time " nominees like Plan Nine From Outer Space and Robot Monster.  Those movies are terrible in their way, but at least they're lively. This one seems determined to bore the audience to death and it requires a heroic effort to keep your eyes fixed on the screen.




The marketing campaign for this one is notable because it's so shot through with an irony that seems better suited to the cynical 1970s. "An astronaut went up -- and a 'guess what' came down!" the one-sheet chortles. Inviting the audience to snicker at your movie was kind of a new thing in 1965. In our cynical, post MST3K world, it's become a lot more common.








 Hangover Square




Synopsis: Gifted musician George Harvey Bone  (Laird Cregar) has been commissioned to write a piano concerto for his patron Sir Henry Chapman (Alan Napier). Sir Henry is so pleased by what George has written so far that he promises to give the concerto a grand premiere as soon as it is finished, and this is all but certain to make his reputation in the music world.

But George is a deeply troubled man.  All his life he has suffered from occasional blackouts, but lately they are becoming more frequent and more disturbing.  George even has a vague memory of attacking a shopkeeper during one such fugue and setting his place on fire by tossing a kerosene lamp to the floor.  But the people around him, including Sir Henry's daughter (Faye Marlowe) assure him that he's simply overwrought. The pressure he's under to complete the concerto is getting to him.

He is advised to take a break -- to get out into the world, to do new things.  In walking about London he meets a dance-hall girl named Netty (Linda Darnell) with whom he has little in common.  But she is pretty and charming, and he quickly falls in love.  Netty, intrigued that he is a musician, asks him to write a song for her to perform.  



At first reluctant, he does so, and it's immediately a success.  She presses for more, and he again complies, even though it is taking valuable time away from his concerto. In time Netty is a rising star on the London music-hall scene, thanks to the popular songs George is writing for her. George, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure to complete the project that he is now late in delivering.

Before long he asks Netty to marry him. But she rejects him, revealing to him that she is already engaged to another man.  She does not love him, she confesses; she has just been using him to write the songs that are making her career. Stunned, George returns home, and places a curtain-sash into his coat pocket, and it's clear that he is entering into another of his murderous blackouts....




Comments: We've talked about how influential the popular and deeply psychological thriller Gaslight was on filmmakers in the 1940's, and this smart entry from Fox is a good example of a film that tries to capture its spirit.  Hangover Square is a period piece that somewhat mimics Gaslight's look; the atmosphere is dark and moody, and the plot turns on whether the protagonist is a killer or just an overly sensitive type whose conscience is working overtime.

Any good movie must have a protagonist trying to reach a goal, and this one is no different.  Aside from the question of guilt or innocence, George's goal is to complete his masterpiece and perform it for the public.  In spite of everything he does manage to succeed in this, so no matter what else goes wrong in his world, no one can take away the triumph of his premiere.

Laird Cregar really dominates this production as the troubled musician, and there is a deep vulnerability visible beneath his hulking shoulders and coarse features.   This physical awkwardness actually makes him more sympathetic and appealing than if a typical Hollywood prettyboy had been cast in the role. Cregar looked older than he was, which makes his death shortly after Hangover Square wrapped production even more shocking. He apparently died of complications from a crash diet he embarked upon in preparing for this role.  In his earlier films he was obese, and even the slimmed-down Cregar is husky in the manner of a young Orson Welles. He is splendid in this movie, and it's a shame he wasn't able to take on more starring roles.

Linda Darnell is pitch perfect too as the calculating Nina, and she convinces us that George would buy her act hook, line and sinker.  It's an intelligent and understated performance, featuring not just her legs (as the one-sheet implies) but also her eyes, as she constantly checks from moment to moment to see how much of her story George is buying. 

I haven't even mentioned George Sanders, who is in a relatively small but important role as a psychologist.  As always, Sanders is understated and authoritative, the perfect counterpoint to George's barely-contained bundle of nerves. And Alan Napier is his old reliable self as Sir Henry Chapman: cool, cultured and unflappable. 







Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday, March 25, 1972: The Return of Dr. X (1939) / The Death Kiss (1932)






Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Walter "Wichita" Garrett (Wayne Morris) is thrilled to score an interview with celebrated actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys).  But when he arrives at her apartment, Garrett finds Merrova dead, stabbed through the heart. Like any good newspaperman, he calls not the police, but his editor.  Before you can say "stop the presses!" his newspaper blares this scoop on its front page.  It's only after the late edition comes out that the police find out about the crime and arrive at Merrova's apartment, but they find no body, and no sign of a struggle.  Garrett is perplexed, but insists that Merrova is dead and someone must have moved the body.

Later, Garrett is called into his editor's office, where he is astonished to find Angela Merrova, not only alive, but threatening a monster lawsuit.  Garrett insists that he saw Merrova dead, and that this woman must be an imposter. The editor sees things differently and Garrett is fired. But because he is that plucky breed of newspaperman that we often encounter in old movies, this doesn't deter him.  He seeks out his friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to ask him whether someone with a stab wound of the type Angela Merrova sustained could survive. 

The good-natured Dr. Rhodes is tolerant of Garrett's questions but he's a little busy.  He is preparing to assist hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) with a tricky blood transfusion.  The donor, a man with a rare blood type, hasn't shown up.  Nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) tells him that she has the same rare blood type, and volunteers to take the donor's place for this procedure.




Joan clearly has a crush on the handsome Dr. Rhodes, and volunteering for a transfusion succeeds in catching his attention: after the procedure he asks her out on a date.  But instead of dancing under the stars, she ends up tagging along as Rhodes and Garrett check up on the missing blood donor.  They find him dead in his apartment, his body drained of all blood.  In fact the only blood they do manage to find doesn't seem to be human blood at all.

They take the blood sample to Dr. Flegg, but Flegg seems rattled by it, angrily asserting that it's ordinary human blood.  While there, they meet the doctor's creepy assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart), a pallid man with a streak of white running through his hair. Certain that he's seen Quesne somewhere before, Garrett searches the newspaper archives until he stumbles onto the photograph he's looking for: Quesne is none other than Dr. Maurice Xavier, whose diabolical experiments sent him to the electric chair years earlier.  Garrett now knows of two dead people who have turned up alive.  But how is it possible?

Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's second go-round with The Return of Dr. X, best remembered today as Humphrey Bogart's only horror film.  While Bogart absolutely didn't want to do this picture, and struggled mightily to get out of it, to his credit he made a valiant effort with the role once he realized he was stuck with it.

Don't get me wrong: Bogart is definitely miscast.  He doesn't project anything close to the aura of menace the character is supposed to possess (and would have possessed, if Karloff, the actor for whom the part was written, had stuck around the Warner lot long enough to appear in it). But he gives it his best effort and has a couple of nice moments -- the knowing smirks and glances when talking to Garrett and Rhodes, the absent way he pets the rabbit whenever he talks about...you know.... blood.




So many people focus on Bogart's performance that this film is rarely judged on its own merits.  It's surprisingly light-hearted for a horror film, owing mostly to the presence of Wayne Morris as "Wichita" Garrett, a breezy naif of a protagonist who supplies his own comic relief.   Wichita's goofy one-liners undercut the almost noirish atmosphere the rest of the cast tries to build.  Interestingly, Dennis Morgan's Dr. Rhodes is a bit more of a conventional leading man type -- he gets the standard-issue romance, for example --  but we have a bit more fun with Wichita. He might be a goofball, but he's at least a moderately interesting one.   Rhodes is a stuffed shirt, and pretty dull company.

John Litel makes a pretty menacing Dr. Flegg; he is much more the mad scientist than the titular Dr. X, who has to do double duty as both lab assistant and monster. Rosemary Lane plays a rather unfortunate nurse, a sweet and innocent young woman who's looking to get her MRS degree, and Lya Lys is intriguing as Angela Merrova but disappears from the movie all too soon. I was looking forward to seeing what her real agenda was, but it was not meant to be.







The Death Kiss





Synopsis: At Ton-Art Studios in Los Angeles, a murder mystery called The Death Kiss is being filmed. Lead actor Myles Brent plays a character who is being targeted for murder in the final act.  He falls under a hail of gunfire.  Director Tom Avery (Edward Van Sloan) halts filming and complains that Brent's death scene was unconvincing.  But moments later it's discovered that Brent is really dead -- killed by one of the shots fired on the set.

Police Detective Lt. Sheehan (John Wray) arrives at Ton-Art and questions those who were present for the death scene.  He also collects the prop guns and determines that all of them were loaded with blanks.







Franklyn Drew (David Manners), a screenwriter on the lot, pokes around the set and discovers a .45 slug buried in one of the flats. He brings it to Lt. Sheehan as proof that the murderer was in possession of a .45, not one of the prop .38s.  That proves it's murder -- since none of the prop guns were .45 caliber weapons.

Sheehan questions Marsha Lane (Adrienne Ames) who is Brent's ex-wife.  As it happens Brent had named Lane sole beneficiary in his will, something the police find very interesting.  But Drew, who seems to have a close relationship with Lane, tells Sheehan that the actress' lawyer had convinced her not to sign documents naming her the sole heir.

Nevertheless, it's clear that Sheehan sees Lane as his prime suspect. Drew knows that there are plenty of other people on the lot who wanted to see Brent killed.  And he means to unmask the real culprit, even if it means risking his own life.... 



Comments: The Death Kiss is an interesting little movie for a number of reasons. It was shot at California Tiffany Studios (which itself starred as the "Ton-Art Studios" lot). California Tiffany was located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, just a block or two from where Kaiser Permanente Medical Center stands today. This was a plucky little film factory, founded in 1921, and it reached its zenith in the middle of the decade producing silent westerns and comedy shorts and other low-budget fare.  Its 1930 feature Mamba is apparently the first ever to be shot in Technicolor.  By the time Mamba premiered, however, the studio was struggling, and The Death Kiss seems to have been the last feature to be filmed there. The studio lot was eventually sold to Columbia.

The cast is also intriguing: made only a year after Dracula, it boasts three members of that film's cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan.  Manners winds up with the lead in this one, and while it may not be the best role of his career, it's certainly the one he's best suited to.  Manners always had a boyish, insouciant style that undercut him as a dramatic lead, but that style works quite well in this picture, where he plays a boyish, insouciant screenwriter who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Who Killed Myles Brent, star of the movie-within-a-movie The Death Kiss.  

Manners' Franklyn Drew seems to be having the time of his life solving a real-life murder right under the noses of the police, and we find his company enjoyable.  Lt. Sheehan is a bit too much in the Lestrade school of incompetent police, but this was a common depiction of police detectives at the time, and we go along with it.  John Wray (apparently no relation to Fay Wray, with whom he appeared in Dr. X) plays Sheehan with a hard-nosed attitude, understandably resentful of the upper-class pretty boy horning in on his act.






Edward Van Sloan plays somewhat against type as a tightly-wound director, and Bela Lugosi isn't menacing at all, even though he is flagged as such in the marketing materials. Lugosi plays studio manager Joseph Steiner, a guy who is supposed to keep the trains running on time.  Clearly his character is supposed to be one of the many suspects in this whodunit, but the role isn't really designed to be a red herring; it becomes so only because Lugosi was chosen for the role. 

Overall this is a fun little romp, not a horror film in any real sense, but a small gem of the kind we used to discover now and again on late-night TV.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saturday, March 18, 1972: The Thing From Another World (1951) / The Face of Marble (1946)





Synopsis: Capt. Pat Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is the pilot of a C-47 transport plane that makes frequent runs to a scientific research station at the North Pole. He and his flight crew are at the Air Force base in Anchorage, waiting to be deployed again. While playing cards in the officer's club, Hendry is introduced to newspaperman Ned Scott (Douglas Spencer), who has just arrived at the Anchorage base. Scott is looking for a story, and is intrigued to hear that Hendry's crew frequently visits the remote station where the famous Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) and a gaggle of other scientists are working. Scott asks Hendry to consider bringing him along on their next run.

Scott doesn't have to wait long; almost immediately Hendry is summoned by his commanding officer, General Fogerty.  Dr. Carrington's team has reported that a large aircraft has crashed in the vicinity, and Fogerty wants Hendry to investigate. Hendry asks permission to bring Scott.  "I don't care if you maroon him up there," Fogerty says tartly, then adds, "Now, don't get me wrong about who gets marooned." He refers to an landing ski that was broken on a previous trip to the pole, which delayed Hendry's return.  Hendry calls the broken ski "an unavoidable accident", but it's clear that Fogerty doesn't believe him.

Within hours Hendry's crew along with Scott are on their way up to the research station. Almost as soon as the plane has landed Hendry seeks out Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), an assistant to the scientists at the station. We learn that the two have not seen each other since Nikki's last visit to Anchorage; she had come down at Hendry's invitation, but the visit didn't go well.  Hendry behaved like a drunken boor (he doesn't even remember the times that he spent "making like an octopus", as Nikki puts it).  He is angry that she not only left without saying goodbye, but put a note on the passed-out Hendry's chest, listing his unattractive attributes, including his legs.  "Now the whole Air Force is laughing at me," he complains.

He asks if it's possible to start over.  She doesn't say no, but there isn't time to discuss the matter: it's time for Hendry to meet with Dr. Carrington, who turns out to be a frosty and condescending sort.  Carrington tells Hendry that he wants to proceed directly to the crash site.

Carrington's urgency is driven by the fact that whatever crashed is too massive to be an airplane, and it isn't a meteor either.  Once on the scene the scientists and military make an assessment, deciding that the object that crashed melted the ice surrounding it and sank before it re-froze.

Attempting to determine the shape of the dark object, the group discovers that it's round - the object is, they deduce, a flying saucer.  Eager to uncover it, and spurred on by a winter storm headed their way, they set thermite charges, but instead of melting the ice as expected, the ship is destroyed.  All that is salvaged is an alien body frozen in ice. They cut a block encasing it and transport it back to the base.

The scientists argue about the best way to thaw the creature so they can examine it, but Hendry tells them that they should do nothing until he gets further orders from Fogerty.  But the winter storm has knocked out communications and they are on their own.

Hendry assigns Corporal Barnes (William Self) to guard the room where the frozen alien is lying.  But Barnes, not wanting to see the alien's open eyes, carelessly tosses an electric blanket on top of the ice. Within a few hours, the ice has melted and the alien body is gone....



Comments: The Thing From Another World was one of the first films to combine the old genre of horror with the new genre of science fiction, and even today it's one of the best examples of that hybrid. It is an absolutely riveting film, still as tense and scary as it was upon its release in 1951.

For many years science fiction aficionados looked down their noses at this picture.  Though it was based on the well-regarded short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., the plot was significantly changed for Hollywood.  Instead of a monster that created cunning duplicates of its victims, leading to a situation where everyone in the camp suspected his neighbor of being an imposter, the movie offered a more prosaic monster-running-loose-through-the-research-station scenario.  That -- and the fact that a woman was added to the cast to create some romantic interest -- led to the charge that The Thing was a profoundly dumbed-down interpretation of Campbell's story.

But judged on its own merits, this is really one of the best horror films ever made. It gets rolling quickly and never takes its foot off the accelerator. The screenplay by Charles Lederer (said to have been substantially reworked by Ben Hecht) absolutely crackles, without an ounce of fat on it. It smartly moves from one setpiece to another, keeping the viewer off balance. The brisk pace also keeps the viewer from thinking about the plot holes until later (for example, there's no real reason for everyone to be in such a hurry to dig out the spacecraft; a winter storm might dump a foot or two of snow onto it, but considering it's already encased in ice, that's trivial).  The film also benefits from one of the greatest film scores of the decade, a nerve-jangling and theremin-infused work by Dmitri Tiomkin.

 A minor though interesting subplot to the movie is the way in which Hendry redeems himself in Nikki's eyes.  He is a distinctly unimpressive fellow in his early scenes. Even allowing for the boys-will-be-boys attitude of the 1950s, Hendry initially comes across as something of a lout. We learn he'd embarrassed himself by getting drunk and regaling Nikki with his sexual escapades in Hawaii, before "making like an octopus" and then passing out.   He is all but accused by his C.O. of sabotaging his own aircraft in order to get more personal time with a pretty girl.  The pretty girl in question, once she got an opportunity to see him up close and personal, decided there was less to him than meets the eye.

But as the crisis builds, Hendry's best self emerges: he is sensible, diplomatic, decisive; he is willing to listen to advice from those around him, regardless of their rank or status.  He is scrupulous in following the orders of his superiors until he determines that the situation has changed enough that he can act on his own authority.

Hendry's leadership style is quite different from that of military men in other science fiction films of the era, which usually assume a good leader is someone who barks out a lot of orders. Nor is there the standard macho posturing and / or fistfight between romantic rivals as was standard in films of this era (e.g., Richard Carlson and Richard Denning in Creature From the Black Lagoon). It's a relief, frankly, to be spared the dreary, standard-issue romantic triangle.


The character of Nikki herself is surprisingly self-assured for a woman of this era, though as has been pointed out many times elsewhere, Nikki is very much in the mold of brassy Howard Hawks females. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and gets her share of one-liners ("If I start to burn up again, who's going to put out the fire?"). While she is never central to the action, she is far stronger and more sensible than women in films of this era.

One weak point in the film is the depiction of Dr. Carrington, who as the designated champion of science and reason repeatedly butts heads with Capt. Hendry.  Everything about Carrington is designed to telegraph that he's not a "real" American, or even a real guy -- everything from his attire (furry Russian-style hat and expensive-looking but impractical cloth coat) to his effete-looking goatee and supercilious manner. Carrington's pedigree is further called into question by the fact that he seems not to notice the presence of his strikingly attractive secretary. In fact, he only has eyes for the monster.

 Carrington is clearly enamored with the creature and its asexual method of reproduction, believing it to possess a cool, cerebral purity unsullied by base emotions and needs. There isn't really any reason for Carrington to believe this except that it's necessary to the plot that he do so; in fact the Thing behaves more like a snarling monster than the "intellectual carrot" that we keep hearing about. Nevertheless if the film can claim to be making any sort of social commentary it appears to be that xenophobia is the correct default response to anything coming from outside, and that intellectuals are dangerously lacking in common sense.  When one of his colleagues refers to the Thing as an enemy, Carrington pushes back. "There are no enemies in science," he says sharply, "only phenomena to be studied". This notion would have seemed particularly dangerous at the height of the Cold War, and we are clearly supposed to regard Carrington as deeply misguided at best and a traitor at worst.



We can actually forgive this clumsy characterization for a number of reasons.  First, from a screenwriting standpoint, there must be ongoing points of conflict between the human characters in order to maintain tension, and with the exception of Carrington, there really aren't any.  Everyone gets along very well -- almost too well.  Hendry's men work together smoothly and efficiently, and the scientists at the base are sober and helpful.  Nikki effortlessly becomes a valued member of the team in spite of her early verbal sparring with Hendry, and despite his cynical wisecracking Scott is as much on board with Hendry's decisions as everyone else. It's a bit clumsy for Carrington to keep turning up as the sole enabler of the Thing's agenda, but somebody has to throw up obstacles for Hendry's team to overcome, and Carrington is a convenient fall guy.

Second, the presence of Carrington's colleagues helps to soften the anti-intellectual message.  With the exception of the snooty Carrington himself, all the scientists are portrayed as friendly, patient, cooperative, and happy to explain difficult concepts to the layman. They quickly grasp the threat the Thing poses.  When Dr. Stern sees the nursery that Dr. Carrington has arranged for the creature's progeny, he is fascinated, but he also recognizes that breeding them is a bad idea.  "Imagine what a thousand of them could do," he says. Dr. Voorhees, an early Carrington ally asks, "What if this being came not to visit the Earth, but to conquer it?" These are reasonable people who don't let their passion for knowledge overwhelm them. The reassuring presence of the avuncular Dr. Stern and the level-headed Dr. Voorhees and Dr. Chapman prevent us from viewing scientists in general with contempt.

By the same token, the military gives Carrington the benefit of the doubt at every turn, always operating from the assumption that while the scientist might be mistaken or even misguided, he is not their enemy.  Hendry in particular is patient with Carrington and goes out of his way to respect his point of view, even when Carrington's actions are dangerous. They treat him the way Nikki sees him -- as "a kid with a new toy" -- and chalk up his misdeeds to exhaustion and an excess of enthusiasm. At the end of the film, in Scott's radio report of the incident to Anchorage, he notes that Carrington is "recovering from injuries sustained in the battle" -- a technically true but deeply misleading statement. "Atta boy, Scotty," one of the men says behind him, and we must assume he speaks for everybody. 

A lesser film would have been much less subtle with this relationship; we would no doubt have had had the military men complaining loudly about Carrington, shaking their heads and wondering whose side he was really on. It's to Lederer and Hecht's credit that the military men are as low-key as they are depicted here.

This film was enormously influential; a whole slew of filmmakers including Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante and John Carpenter cited The Thing as having a big impact on them as kids. Stephen King wrote extensively about it as well in his book of essays Danse Macabre.  The film was commonly referred to simply as The Thing for decades, but it's now usually referred to as The Thing From Another World in order to distinguish it from Carpenter's own The Thing (1982) and Matthijs van Heijningen's prequel to the Carpenter version, confusingly also called The Thing (2011). 

While there's much to admire about the Carpenter version, I found the characters to be rather sour and unlikable, and I never really cared what happened to any of them. The van Heijningen version offered a more interesting set of characters and some clever variations on how to prove one is a human instead of an imposter.  But because it was a prequel, we knew how it was going to end, deflating a good deal of the suspense.

The original is deft and spectacular in its own way: not as cool or cynical as the later versions, but a  taut and suspenseful picture that still packs a wallop. It's the kind of movie late-night creature features were made for.


 The Face of Marble




 Synopsis: Dr. Charles Randolph (John Carradine)  lives comfortably in a large seaside house with his wife Elaine (Claudia Drake). Working in the basement with an array of high-voltage appliances, Randolph and his assistant David (Robert Shayne) are trying to find a method of bringing the dead back to life.
As the movie opens, Randolph and David are trying to restore to life a drowned sailor they found washed up on the shore. David is uneasy with this, fearing that they have crossed a moral line; but Randolph insists that they can't do any harm to a man who's already dead.
As they apply higher and higher voltages to the body, Randolph notes that the face of the sailor has taken on a stone-like appearance.  As the two men watch, the sailor sits up, then stands, but suddenly collapses, dead.  The experiment has failed, but Randolph feels they were very close to success.  He notes that the electrical generator has burned out, and  he goes into town to get a replacement.
The next day the local chief of police comes to visit Randolph, who had earlier alerted the authorities a body had washed up on the shore. The chief says the sailor Randolph found died under curious circumstances. --  an autopsy has revealed he was electrocuted.  Furthermore, the sheriff notes that Randolph had gone into town to buy a replacement generator, and he wonders if there is a connection. Randolph tries to laugh it off, but it's clear that the police chief is suspicious.
Meanwhile, we learn that Elaine has fallen in love with David.  Randolph is entirely unaware of this; and David's behavior is quite above-board, but the Randolph's maid Maria, who's very loyal to Elaine, practices voodoo, and plants a doll under David's pillow - one that she believes will make him fall in love with her mistress.  Meanwhile, Dr. Randolph, noticing David's growing uneasiness around the house, arranges for David's girlfriend Linda (Maris Wrixon) to come and visit.  This only increases the tension in the household, and before long Linda becomes troubled by the house's odd vibe and leaves.
Dr. Randolph decides to try the experiment again -- this time on Elaine's beloved Great Dane Brutus.  He and David fail to revive the dog.  But before long, they hear Brutus barking from another room.  The dog is alive, but somehow changed: it has an odd, stony faced appearance, seems to have turned savage in the presence of humans, and has an odd ability to walk through walls.
Unexpectedly, Elaine dies, and Dr. Randolph can only think of one way to save her --by reviving her the same way he revived Brutus, and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be....



Comments: Hoo boy, another Monogram picture, and perhaps not coincidentally, another picture about scientists working on a way to bring the dead back to life. This no doubt seemed like a jolly good idea back when Frankenstein premiered. But really guys, enough already.

The problem with The Face of Marble isn't that it's bad (though it isn't good, exactly); it's that it never quite figures out what sort of movie it wants to be, and lurches from one disconnected plot point to another until time runs out.  Using electricity to revive the dead and stealing corpses for the experiments is borrowed from countless movies that in turn borrowed from Frankenstein; the voodoo maid could have come from Night of Terror or I Walked With a Zombie or a dozen other movies. The small-town chief of police who keeps stopping by for friendly "chats" about sinister doings about town is equal parts The Devil Commands and Son of Frankenstein.

Only two plot points come across as even slightly original.  The love triangle stands out because it's Elaine, not one of the men, who wants to change the romantic equation.  In this era, women characters were distinctly lacking in agency, particularly involving matters of sexuality.  By introducing Maria and her black magic, the movie cheats a bit, taking some of the onus off Elaine.  But there's no way around the fact that Elaine hungers for something she doesn't have and which society says she shouldn't want.  And this is made more interesting by the fact that the movie chooses not to stack the deck against her husband, Dr. Randolph. He is not depicted as a jerk or a boor.  To the contrary, he is charming and generous to those around him, certainly more likable and lively a character than stuffed-shirt David.

The other point of interest is the mysterious transformation of Brutus. The dog's personality changes as a result of the experiment -- he becomes savage -- and he also gains the ability to move through solid objects, which even for a movie like this is an unexpected side effect. And so it's a bit novel to have the dog wandering around the house, walking through solid walls.  And later, when Elaine inevitably undergoes the same treatment, she and the dog become a tag team, moving through solid objects like ghosts in a spooky seaside manor. 

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not a John Carradine fan but I have to admit that I liked him here.  He plays a character not unlike the one he played in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which perhaps not coincidentally was the other Carradine performance I liked.  I never find the man's evil characters interesting or compelling, but for some reason I find him more believable as a good-natured (but slightly naive) tinkerer. 
 Claudia Drake is perfectly acceptable as Elaine, and Robert Shayne gets all of his lines right as David.