Sunday, May 17, 2015

Saturday, May 27, 1972: Chamber of Horrors (1966) / The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Synopsis: Late one night in turn of the 20th century Baltimore, a lunatic named Jason Cravatt (Patrick O'Neal) forces a minister at gunpoint to perform a marriage ceremony. We quickly discover that the bride is a corpse, her glassy eyes open, and as soon as Cravatt has tied the knot, he takes the woman's body away, lovingly placing a wedding band on her finger.

It turns out that Cravatt is a serial strangler with a weakness for statuesque blondes, but this time the police arrive quickly enough to capture him. In handcuffs, he is taken away to stand trial.

But before he can be delivered into the hands of the judicial machine, Cravatt manages to chop off his handcuffed hand and vanish. With money and a suave demeanor he is able to elude police and make friends, most of whom are statuesque blondes.  He also has a wooden cover made for his mutilated wrist, which can accommodate a hook, a meat cleaver, a knife, and other attachments.

The police, having lost the trail, turn to the proprietors of a wax museum dedicated to chronicling the most lurid murders in history.  Anthony Draco (Cesare Danova) and Harold Blount (Wilfrid Hyde-White) are regarded as experts on the criminal mind, and they act as consulting detectives on the case. But can they guess the killer's next move in time to save his next victim?

Comments: Before we dive into this cinematic oddity, I need to make a small confession. I don't always have 100% confidence that the movie listed in the newspaper is the same movie that was broadcast on Horror Incorporated.

Last-minute substitutions were always a possibility, and without any actual records from the television station itself there's no way for me to independently verify what was broadcast. Fortunately for us, out-and-out substitutions occurred very infrequently and we can be fairly certain that a movie called Chamber of Horrors played on the night of Saturday, May 27, 1972.

The problem is that there are a number of movies with the title Chamber of Horrors; and the TV station itself didn't write the description that appeared in the newspaper.  Newspapers in those days (and even these days, I suppose) subscribed to a TV listing service.  These services gave one-sentence descriptions of movies and TV episodes that newspapers could plug in to their daily schedule. It's a system that works pretty well, assuming the description you have at hand is for the right movie.  But if Horror Incorporated played the 1940 movie with that title, or the 1962 movie with that title (as they did previously), we will never know.

So, with that caveat, let's take a look at this particular Chamber of Horrors.  It was directed by Hy Averback, a producer who worked mostly in television and who went on to have a very successful career with shows like F Troop and  M*A*S*H.  This film was originally conceived as a pilot for a TV series called House of Wax. Draco and Blount were the ostensible leads, using their encyclopedic knowledge of the history of crime to solve the bizarre murders that baffled the Baltimore Police Department.

Most pilots, of course, never get picked up as series, and this was no exception.  Though quite tame by today's standards it was probably considered a bit too ghoulish for network TV of the time. It's clear that some additional scenes were shot to pad the running time (Tony Curtis, a big star of the 1950s who was scraping bottom by the middle of the next decade, appears in a pointless cameo), thus making the film suitable for theatrical release. Also added was a zany, William Castle-esque gimmick -- the "fear flash" and the "horror horn".  This was breathlessly promoted as an aid to the more nervous members of the audience -- when the screen began flashing red and the horror horn started honking, faint-of-heart viewers were encouraged to look away because something really, really, gruesome was about to happen.

The problem with the gimmick is that nothing gruesome is ever shown on screen. For example, the screen starts flashing red and the repetitive tone starts bonging before Cravatt hacks off his own hand in order to escape.  But all we see is a closeup of Cravatt's deranged face as he does the deed, and no actual blood or viscera is shown.

Hammer films were a whole lot bloodier, and they were in theaters a decade before Chamber of Horrors.  But we should make allowances.  This was originally shot for network TV, and in 1966 the networks still held strongly to the idea that when someone turned on a television, they were inviting a guest into their home; and presumably guests aren't supposed to use foul language or start spurting blood all over the place.

But in many ways Chamber of Horrors is reminiscent of the movies that Hammer made in its salad days. For something intended for TV it has pretty impressive production values, and the whole thing is beautifully photographed. The 19th-century backdrop is so well rendered we could imagine Terence Fisher directing it.

The cast is interesting, if not uniformly solid. Patrick O'Neal seems to be enjoying himself as Cravatt, and Wilford Hyde-White's Blount is very reminiscent of a Hammer films character, as is Cesare Danova's Draco.  Somewhat weaker is Wayne Rogers as a Baltimore detective, and the other characters are rather flat and forgettable. It's all rather messy as a feature film, and we can't fault the TV networks for passing on it. All the same, the overall look is quite impressive. 

The Man They Could Not Hang

Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient's body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob's heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob's heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.

At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .

On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.

The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.

Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors -- as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney -- have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard's voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he's already dead....

Comments: The Man They Could Not Hang was one of a number of mad scientist pictures starring Boris Karloff that Columbia made between 1939 and 1940.  They were formulaic movies, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is how similar they are to one another. In each of these films, Boris Karloff played a kindly scientist whose important research is upended by a pack of paternalistic busybodies; as a result his line of research is ruined and he decides to take revenge on the parochial ninnies who thwarted him. In this picture, the police intrude on an experiment in suspended animation. The cops think the test subject (Savaard's own lab assistant Bob) is dead, and they remove him from the cryogenic tank. This results in Bob's actual death, for which Dr. Savaard is put on trial.  Embittered, Savaard swears vengeance against the judge, jury and prosecutor who rule against him.

We can infer that the decision to make Bob the fiancee of Dr. Savaard's daughter Janet is designed to up the emotional ante, to make his death more of a blow to Dr. Savaard personally. But this decision is undercut somewhat by Dr. Savaard's use of Bob as the test subject in the first place. For all his confidence in the procedure, Savaard had to know that something could have gone wrong; and in fact something did go wrong. He might choose to blame the meddling police and the small-minded doctors who pronounced Bob dead in the cryogenic chamber, but Savaard still bears some measure of responsibility.

But we need to go easy on the screenwriters here, because they have a pretty difficult task placed before them. Kindly humanitarians aren't easily turned into stone-cold killers out for revenge --- especially when the targets are guilty not of malice, but simple ignorance.

The best revenge stories put their heroes through Job-like punishments and when the victims finally decide to launch their vendetta we are right with them.  We root for Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo not because we're into payback, but because he has been so cruelly and thoroughly betrayed that we want the injustice to be righted and the perpetrators to be punished. In The Man They Could Not Hang we are supposed to buy into Dr. Savaard's anger just enough to believe that he feels payback is warranted.  At the same time, we're also supposed to understand that what he is doing is wrong and hope that he doesn't succeed. Any movie built on such a wobbly foundation isn't going to be entirely successful. But to its credit, the movie runs it by us so quickly that we don't have a lot of time to think about it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Friday, May 26, 1972: The Black Sleep

Synopsis: Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsey (Herbert Rusley) has been convicted of murder. On the eve of his hanging, he is visited by one of his old medical school professors, Sir Joel Cadman.  Ramsey swears to Cadman that he didn't commit the crime, and Cadman seems sympathetic. He gives Ramsey a vial of powder and instructs him to mix the powder with water and drink before dawn on the morning of his hanging.  This, Cadman promises, will put him in a such a state of torpor that he will not be aware of the hanging at all. He also assures Ramsey that his body won't be turned over to the medical college for dissection, as is normally done with convicts' bodies; instead, the body will be turned over to Dr. Cadman himself.

When the guards come for Ramsey the next morning they find his dead body lying in the cell.  The body is transferred to Dr. Cadman, who once back at his lab gives it an injection.  At once the body goes into convulsions; minutes later, Dr. Ramsey has come back to life.

This, Dr. Cadman tells an astonished Ramsey, is the work of an ancient drug known as the Black Sleep; it perfectly simulates death; and as long as the antidote is given within 24 hours, the patient can be revived. A grateful Ramsey agrees to assist Dr. Cadman with his brain research.

While at the Cadman estate, Ramsey witnesses young Laurie (Patricia Blair) being attacked by a wild-eyed patient, Mungo (Lon Chaney, Jr). Mungo seems deranged and is apparently carries a visceral hatred for Laurie.  Ramsey tells Cadman that Mungo reminds him of someone he once knew, Professor Monroe, who was one of his instructors in college.  Cadman tells him that Mungo is indeed Professor Monroe; moreover, Laurie is his daughter.

Dr. Ramsey assists in experimenting with the brain of a cadaver when he notices cerebral fluid running down the surface of the brain.  How can this happen on a cadaver? he asks Cadman.  It isn't a cadaver, Dr. Cadman replies.  The man they are experimenting on is alive, kept in a state of suspended animation by the Black Sleep.

When Dr Ramsey protests, Cadman tells him that this is the only way to conduct the research that will benefit all mankind.  He reminds him that Dr. Monroe will benefit when he is able to unlock the mysteries of the human brain; so will Dr. Cadman's wife, who has been in a trance-like state since a brain injury.

But little does Dr. Ramsey know that Cadman was the one who arranged for him to be tried and convicted of murder, in order to recruit him as an assistant in his ghoulish experiments....

Comments: This is the third broadcast of The Black Sleep on Horror Incorporated, and I don't really have much more to say about it than in my previous posts on the film.  I looked up external reviews on IMDB to see if I could find a contrary opinion that I might argue with, but there seems to be a drowsy consensus on this mid-50s indie production: it's seen as a clear homage and throwback to Universal's golden age of horror, but nevertheless a rather dreary production that comes up short on delivering the goods.

Dave Sindelar notes its similarity to The Unearthly, which also featured  John Carradine and Tor Johnson; he also expresses a dislike for Akim Tamiroff's performance, which he called "a little over-the-top", which is quite an accomplishment for someone in the same movie as John Carradine.

Richard Scheib found it "talky and static", allowing that the early scenes "create a (relative) sense of medically grounded realism" but that before long the movie is undermined by its own cliches - "the ethically-challenged scientist; a madman (Lon Chaney, Jr) in the house; a mute retainer (Bela Lugosi); deformities of failed experiments kept in the cellar; a scientist's innocent daughter needing saving; laboratories improbably hidden beneath swiveling fireplaces in the library."

The only participant who gets away relatively unscathed is Basil Rathbone, whose authoritative delivery made him a natural for these late-period mad scientist pictures; one can imagine him stepping into one of Hammer's Frankenstein productions had Peter Cushing been unavailable. In fact, Scott Ashlin does imagine it, saying:

[I}t’s too bad Rathbone got pigeonholed so early on as Sherlock Holmes. He had a commanding elegance about him akin to that later displayed by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and which nobody else on the 30’s and 40’s horror scene could match. Lionel Atwill and John Carradine came close on occasion, but Atwill was always a little too foppish and Carradine a little too homespun to play the depraved Old World nobleman with Rathbone’s authority; neither of them would have been up to the challenge of Tower of London's Richard III, for example. As Joe Cadman, Rathbone simultaneously prefigures the Cushing Frankenstein, and hints at all the brilliant mad movie scientists that might have been if only Rathbone hadn’t been so busy chasing Nazi agents all over the English moors during the years of the second Hollywood horror boom.

Interestingly, Scheib claims that Lugosi worked on The Black Sleep after Ed Wood shot his home-movie-esque footage for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959); I'm not sure of the timeline myself, but either way it seems clear that this was Lugosi's last screen role, and not Plan 9, as is often claimed.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Saturday, May 20, 1972: The Beast With 5 Fingers (1946) / The Brute Man (1946)

Synopsis: Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) is an American living in a small Italian village.  He makes a living partly by fleecing American tourists with "antique" stones, and partly by ingratiating himself to Francis Ingraham, a wealthy musician who owns a mansion in the village.

Ingraham is in poor health, confined to a wheelchair, and he only has the use of one hand.  As a concert pianist this is immensely frustrating for him.  But Conrad, himself a musician, has composed for him a number of pieces that can be played with one hand, something which gives Ingraham some measure of comfort.

One evening Ingraham asks his nurse Julie, his long-time secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), his attorney Dupreix and Conrad to join him over dinner.  He asks each of them if they consider him to be of sound mind, and they all agree that he is. He then asks them to sign a document naming them witnesses to a new will that he has written.

It is clear that Ingraham is in love with Julie.  So is Conrad; and he tries to convince Julie to come away with him, even though he knows that he has no money and no prospects. Ingraham, he admits ruefully, is the meal ticket for all those around him.  Conrad lives off his largesse; Julie is on his payroll, as is Hilary; and there's no doubt that Dupreix depends on Ingraham for much of his business.

But Hilary has overheard Conrad's conversation with Julie, and he immediately goes and tells Ingraham about it.  Ingraham, thinking that Hilary is trying to turn him against Julie, seizes Hilary's throat, choking him.  Hilary manages to escape, but is left with ugly marks on his neck.  Ingraham tells him to get out of the house.

Late that night there is a tremendous thunderstorm, and Ingraham, calling in vain for Julie, brings his chair too close to the top of the stairs.  The wheelchair tips and Ingraham takes a fatal fall down the long staircase.

The discovery of the body is a great shock to the community, and soon Ingraham's only living relatives show up --  Mr. Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son Donald (John Alvin). The two immediately start taking an inventory of the house's contents, clearly with the idea of liquidating them. This angers Hilary, who claims all the books in the library belong to him, that they were gifts from Ingraham.

But when the will is read everyone is shocked to discover that Julie has been named as the sole heir.  The Arlingtons are furious, and vow to contest the will.  Dupreix secretly meets with the Arlingtons and agrees to support their claim in exchange for a cut of the estate.


Soon weird things start to happen. There's a light coming from the crypt where Ingraham is buried.  Dupreix opens his door to discover a hand -- bearing Ingraham's ring -- reaching for his throat; he is later found strangled. The piano downstairs is heard to play one of Ingraham's one-handed compositions, but when people go to investigate no one is there.  Later, Hilary swears he saw Ingraham's disembodied hand moving of its own accord.  Arlington is nearly strangled by a hand that seemed to come from nowhere.  And when  police commisario Castanio leads the others to the crypt they discover that Ingraham's hand has been cut off from his body, and a window in the crypt has been smashed -- a window just large enough to allow a human hand to escape....

Comments: We've noted in the past that Warner Brothers didn't dabble in horror movies very often, and on the rare occasions when it ventured out into the boneyard the results were disappointing.  Tonight's feature, The Beast With 5 Fingers, has already aired a few times on Horror Incorporated.  Like Warner's curious misfire The Return of Dr. X, this movie is evidence that horror is a surprisingly difficult film genre to do well, one that shouldn't be attempted by those who don't like or understand it. 

I admire Beast's overall look and set design, and the cast is appealing, especially Peter Lorre as the excitable and increasingly unbalanced Hilary.  As a mystery, it's a little slow out of the gate, but nevertheless it is on fairly solid ground through most of its running time.  But in the third act it falls apart rather spectacularly simply because it can't take its own premise seriously. 

I'll be the first to admit that a crawling, disembodied hand isn't the best idea for a monster, for all kinds of reasons; nevertheless Beast seems to have influenced other filmmakers over the years.  Among them, Sam Raimi:

And let's not forget the dismal 1964 indie opus The Crawling Hand.  It's probably best to see the MST3K version, in which Crow T. Robot points out  (in the scene starting at 1:12:27) that a crawling, disembodied hand would lack not only a brain, but (more crucially) leverage:

Probably the best thing that can be said about a crawling-hand monster is that it's a cheap effect to do -- even the process shots are simple. But then again, a good script is the foundation upon which any movie is built, so thrifty effects only get you so far.  As both The Beast With 5 Fingers and The Crawling Hand amply demonstrate.

The Brute Man

Synopsis: The city is being terrorized by a spine-snapping brute called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), a grotesque character who prowls the streets at night and seemingly kills at random. The police are under enormous pressure to capture him, but so far they don't have a name, or even a clear description.

One night the killer strikes again, and this time his victims are a professor at Hampton college and a woman named Joan Bemis, whom the Creeper seems to know.

The police manage to corner their suspect in an apartment house; in order to escape, the Creeper enters the apartment of a young woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because Helen is blind, she isn't repelled by his appearance. He asks for her help, and she agrees, saying that she has a gift of sensing a person's true nature.  When the police knock on her door, she tells them that she hasn't seen anyone suspicious in the area.

Helen knows only that she's met a man who is in some sort of trouble, and she is certain that he is innocent of whatever he's been accused of.  For his part the Creeper is glad to know someone who doesn't scream and run away when he enters the room, and a rather unlikely friendship ensues.

Soon enough the Creeper has murdered a delivery boy who brought groceries to the waterfront storage shed he's been living in.  Here the police discover an old newspaper clipping of three college chums, circa 1930: Clifford Scott, Virginia Rogers and Hal Moffat. 

When the police look for Clifford Scott and Virginia Rogers they discover the two are now married; and that the third person in the photo, Hal Moffat, was Clifford's college roommate as well as a rival for Virginia's affections. The late Joan Bemis was also a close friend of the trio. A star athlete, Hal's face was hideously disfigured in a lab accident.  The accident seems also to have affected his "glands and nerves", not to mention his mind; because all these years later Hal has decided to get revenge on all those who spurned him in college.

Meanwhile, learning that Helen needs $3,000 to pay for an operation to cure her blindness, Hal decides to get her the money -- even though he knows that she will be repelled by him if she's able to see him.  Nevertheless, he goes to Clifford and Virginia and demands money.  Clifford gives him a box of expensive jewelry, but manages to put a couple of .38 slugs into him before he's murdered himself.

Wounded, Hal delivers the jewelry to Helen, determined that she go ahead with the operation. But when the police find her and tell her who she's befriended, she agrees to help them find their quarry. Angered at her public betrayal, he decides that Helen too must die....

Comments: The Brute Man is spectacularly forgettable, notable only as a Universal horror film that was completed just as the curtain was ringing down on the studio's so-called golden age -- and, in fact, a movie so embarrassing that it was ultimately sold off to PRC for distribution. It was also the last film to star the hulking Rondo Hatton, whose glandular condition (acromegalia) had deformed his features enough to give him a repulsive, brutish appearance. Hatton had no acting talent to speak of, but after a memorable turn in the Sherlock Holmes programmer The Pearl of Death (1944) as a character called "The Creeper", Universal tried to build him up as a one-man horror franchise. He appeared as Gail Sondegaard's creepy manservant in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946) and then, in a nod to the character he played in The Pearl of Death, as The Creeper in House of Horrors (1946). In this film he was a skulking killer who snaps people's spines. House of Horrors was a smart little movie, and The Creeper was brought back (in what we might today call a prequel) in The Brute Man.

The Brute Man attempted to up the ante by providing a tragic backstory for the character of The Creeper and giving him more screen time than he had enjoyed in the past, but producer Ben Pivar's dream of making The Creeper part of the Universal monster pantheon was clearly doomed from the start. It turns out that The Creeper might be an interesting fellow to see skulking in the shadows near the waterfront, but a little goes a long way.  We don't really want to know his life story, and we don't want to spend a good chunk of the movie hanging around with him.  Moreover, Rondo Hatton died while The Brute Man was still in post-production. Even if he had lived, it's unlikely that The Creeper franchise would have been long-lived; horror films were falling out of fashion, and television -- which would soon run the poverty row houses into extinction -- was already looming on the horizon.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Friday, May 19, 1972: Kronos (1956)

Synopsis:  Late one night in the California desert, a man drives his pickup truck along a lonely stretch of highway.  Suddenly, his radio is filled with static and his truck stalls.  He gets out and lifts the hood, then notices a strange white sphere racing toward him. When the sphere hits him it vanishes, and he calmly lowers the hood of his vehicle, gets into the truck, and heads back the way he came.

Soon the driver arrives at a scientific research facility called LabCentral.  There he knocks out the security guard and barges into the office of the lab's director, Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery). In an instant, the white sphere transfers from the truck driver to Dr. Elliot.  The driver collapses, dead; now Dr. Elliot seems not to be himself.  He immediately goes to a locked cabinet and peruses a file that lists the locations and yields of all the world's atomic power plants.

"Plot her orbit? I hardly know her!"
Elsewhere in the building, three other LabCentral employees are working late: Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) is tracking the path of an asteroid, with the help of his beautiful assistant / #1 squeeze Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence); Dr. Arnold Culver (George O'Hanlon) is using a mammoth computer nicknamed "Susie" to compute the asteroid's orbit.  But something hinkey is going on: Gaskell is certain the asteroid's course is changing for no apparent reason.  And before long Susie bears this out: the asteroid is now heading directly for Earth.

When told of this, Dr. Elliot shrugs, suggesting that Susie might have made a mistake; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  Gaskell finds Elliot's attitude perplexing.  He implores Elliot to contact the government immediately -- missiles loaded with nuclear warheads must be fired at the asteroid while it's still in space.  If the object isn't destroyed, Gaskell says, its impact could cause enormous damage.

Susie! Speak to me!

Reluctantly, Elliot agrees.  Soon a trio of missiles are launched at the asteroid.  All three strike their target.  At the same moment Dr. Elliot collapses to the floor, unconscious.  But to Gaskell's astonishment, the asteroid is left completely intact and its course is unchanged.  The object splashes into the sea,  a few miles off the west coast of Mexico.  On a hunch, Gaskell and Culver travel to Mexico to see if they can determine the asteroid's makeup.  Gaskell is surprised but eventually delighted when Vera shows up as well.

Back in the States, Dr. Elliot, moving in and out of a trance-like state, is being treated by a psychiatrist.  In his lucid moments, he tells the shrink that an alien intelligence has gained control of him, and is forcing him to betray the human race.  The alien race is trying to absorb all the Earth's energy, and will succeed if given time. 

The following morning, the scientists in Mexico awake to discover that in the same place in the ocean where the object landed, a 300-foot robot now stands....

Pretty sure that wasn't there when we went to bed last night.

Comments: It Came From Outer Space and War of the Worlds, both released in 1953, were popular films that helped launch the cycle of sci-fi movies that followed over the next decade.  And they were archetypal: embedded in each were tropes that we would see repeated again and again, in countless films such as tonight's feature from 1957, Kronos.

First of all, we have a hero scientist who isn't interested in bringing the dead back to life, or otherwise breaking the laws of nature -- those obsessions belonged to the gloomy movie scientists of the 1930s and 40s. Both It Came From Outer Space's John Putnam (an amateur astronomer) and War of the Worlds' Dr. Clayton Forrester (a physicist) are deeply moral men who are only interested in learning the truth about a strange phenomenon, even when the search for truth risks ridicule or even bodily harm.

Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is an early example of the hero-scientist in the movies, looking a bit like Clark Kent the moment before he turns into Superman

Moreover, Putnam and Forrester are carefully presented as more than just eggheads.  Along with their intelligence and curiosity they are quite deliberately shown to be masculine types, successful with women and ready for fisticuffs or more if the need arises (Forrester clobbers a Martian intruder with a metal bar; Putnam keeps a .38 in the glove compartment of his Ford Crestline). 

The brooding social misfits of the Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi era are gone. In their place are men who are responsible and well-adjusted members of society.  in War of the Worlds, Forrester gets along easily with the people of the small California town he visits, gamely participating in a Saturday night square dance, and is treated with great respect and deference not only by the local minister (and the minister's fetching daughter) but by the hard-nosed General Mann as well.  Putnam in It Came From Outer Space is more of an odd duck in Sand Rock, Arizona, but he eventually earns the grudging respect of the local authorities (even though his story is initially discounted by the Sheriff, the astronomy professor and the local newspaperman, the working-class telephone linemen Frank and George are immediately on his side). And even in his lowest moments he has Ellen, the prettiest girl in town, patiently waiting for him to pop the question.

The tightly-wound John Putnam (Richard Carlson) was kind of a fish out of water in Sand Rock, Arizona. But he is never without allies, and has the added virtue of always being right.

Kronos borrows a lot from these films, both consciously and unconsciously. Jeff Morrow's affable manner and athletic build are reminiscent of both It Came From Outer Space's Richard Carlson and War of the Worlds'  Gene Barry.  Like the love interests in these two films, Vera is a knockout who spends most of her time trying to get her distracted scientist boyfriend to pay attention to her.

When the giant robot Kronos threatens the Earth, and the armies of the world fail to defeat it, they turn to science for answers. The postwar optimism about scientists -- what can't they do? -- lives uneasily alongside the notion that science might yet unleash powers that even our vaunted military can't handle.

LabCentral may superficially resemble War of the World's fictional Pacific Tech, but it's also a stand-in for the entire postwar scientific community. The image of the scientist is no longer Boris Karloff furtively mixing chemicals in a secret lab; now science is an open activity, glamorous and well-funded and busily paving the road to the future. This golden age of scientist-heroes in the movies didn't last long, as the optimism about both science and scientists faded and Americans' more reflexive distrust of intellectuals came to the fore once again. But it was an interesting time.

Kurt Neumann had directed countless B-movies through the 30s and 40s, including any number of quota quickies and Tarzan movies. He rushed the Destination Moon ripoff Rocketship XM to theaters in advance of its more expensive rival, while still maintaining a look that belied its meager budget.  Kronos is made in his usual straightforward, workmanlike style. Neumann is probably best known for The Fly (1958) a big hit that he unfortunately never lived to see released; he died in 1958, at the age of 50.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday, May 13, 1972: The Lodger (1944) / Buried Alive (1939)

Synopsis: On a foggy night in London, police are on the lookout for the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who has already claimed three victims in the seedy neighborhood of Whitechapel. Despite the heightened police presence, the killer strikes again. One woman claims to have seen a man fleeing the scene of the crime, but she did not see his face.

Later that evening, the newspaper special editions hit the streets, and people eagerly come out from their homes to buy the latest news.  One of these people is Robert Bonting, a down-on-his-luck investor whose wife Ellen has decided to let out one of the rooms in the house until their fortunes recover. A man arrives in response to her advertisement: a tall, hulking doctor who calls himself  Mr. Slade, who rents the room on the spot after only the most cursory look at it.  He tells the Bontins that he tends to keep odd hours, and he insists on using the back door to the house to enter and exit.  He also avidly relates to Ellen some Bible verses related to the dangers of wanton women, and he tells her that the worst types are women of the theater.  His own brother, he relates, was ruined by such a woman. Ellen tells him that her own daughter is performing in a music hall show, and that when he meets her, she will surely change his mind about the bad sort of women who perform in the theater.

This woman is the Bonting's daughter Kitty Langley (Merle Oberon), who does make an impression on the ungainly Mr. Slade.  Clearly he is torn between his attraction for Kitty and his disapproval of the wanton board-treading strumpets of the London theater. Meanwhile, Ellen is growing suspicious of Slade; he appears to trained as a surgeon, as the Ripper is believed to be; he keeps strange hours; he harbors a deep resentment toward women.  A police detective finds himself attracted to Kitty, and he begins to wonder if Ellen might be on to something....

Comments: This very handsomely photographed thriller features Laird Cregar as the mysterious Mr. Slade, and the lovely Merle Oberon as Kitty. The Lodger has been adapted for the screen a number of times (most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in a silent version); but this by far the best known of the sound-era versions.

Unfortunately, The Lodger is hobbled by a couple of serious deficiencies.  The first is a structural problem in the story itself: the film wants us to get caught up in the question of whether or not the mysterious lodger is in fact the Ripper.  But Mr. Slade is so obviously loony and hostile to women that there's virtually no suspense to be found.  The story would have worked better by offering more in the way of misdirection.  We get one good scene of this kind when Emily notices that Slade has hidden his Gladstone bag after newspaper reports suggests that the Ripper carries one.  But when she goes to Robert with this information, Robert defends Slade, saying that many men carry such bags, including himself -- and then he shows her a Gladstone bag that he himself has hidden, fearing that he will be mistaken for the Ripper.  The movie might have played on our suspicions that Robert Bontin himself might be the Ripper, but this possibility is never pursued, and we never have reason to believe that anyone but Slade is the culprit.

The other major problem, unfortunately, is Laird Cregar's performance as Slade.  Cregar's imposing physicality as an actor goes a long way, and his bulgy-eyed, over-the-top portrayal becomes unintentionally comical. Cregar doesn't deserve all the blame for this; director John Brahm should have recognized the problem and had Cregar dial his performance down. Nevertheless, the supporting cast does just fine.  Merle Oberon is a captivating presence, Sara Allgood gives a smart turn as the worried Ellen and Cedric Hardwicke delivers an unusually wiggy performance as Robert Bontin.  And that old smoothie George Sanders is a welcome presence in any film.

Buried Alive

Synopsis: It's close to midnight at the state penitentiary, where an execution is due to take place. The executioner Ernie Matthews is beside himself with anguish and self loathing. He hates the idea of killing someone at the State's behest, even if it is a notorious murderer of women. Bob, the prison doctor feels bad too, but understands that they must all do their jobs.

Anyway, that's what Bob tells nurse Joan, who is also distraught about the pending execution. He tells her that once he's back from his month-long vacation in Bermuda he will look for another job -- one in a pleasant small town. And when he finds that job he will ask Joan to marry him.

But Joan is undecided. She likes Bob but is reluctant to give him an answer.

At midnight the execution takes place. Joan is to take Bob to the airport, and Ernie cadges a ride to a nearby bar to drown his sorrows. The warden asks Johnny Martin, a trusty who is about to be paroled, to drive the car.

When they leave, prison pastor Ira tells the warden that he's in love with Joan, but she isn't aware of it; as long as she shows a preference for Bob, he will keep silent about it.  But he tells the warden that Ernie is in love with Joan too."He told me months ago that the only reason he remains here is to be near Joan."

"Am I running a prison or a lonely hearts club?" the warden wonders aloud.

Ernie gets dropped off at the bar, where he meets Manning, a loud-mouthed reporter who had covered the execution. The two get into a fight that turns into a full-on barroom brawl. Meanwhile, Joan has dropped Bob off at the airport, and decides to go back to the bar and check on Ernie. Johnny enters the bar to find him and tries to break up the fight.  Johnny gets a few punches in, but ends up getting cut in the neck by a broken bottle.

This lands him in the prison hospital where Joan tends to his wounds.  She finds herself charmed by Johnny's aw-shucks attitude. She asks him what he's in prison for, and while he hints that he's innocent, he doesn't claim to be; after all, that's what all the other guys in stir do.  No, he says, he's just the kind of guy who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Manning has long wanted to pin a newspaper scandal on the governor, and he sees the barroom brawl as a way to succeed.  Soon headlines screaming about the drunken state executioner and the prison trusty engaging in fistfights are coming thick and fast, and the governor tells the warden
 that Johnny's parole will have to be delayed for at least a year, until the scandal blows over.

Ira suggests that Joan spend more time with Johnny to help prepare him for the possibility that he might not make parole.  But Joan discovers not only that Johnny has fallen in love with her, but that she has fallen in love with him. This gives Johnny something to live for outside of the prison, so he is shocked and angered to find that he's not leaving the prison anytime soon....

Comments: Romantic love doesn't usually figure prominently in prison movies, so in that regard at least Buried Alive stands out from your standard issue film of this type. Joan isn't the only woman on Earth but she might as well be, given the attention that every man around gives to her. Like a lot of the quickly-penned programmers of this era, you get the odd feeling that Buried Alive was written by people who had no first-hand experience in human relationships.

The cavalcade of men who are vying for Joan's affections becomes unintentionally funny. It would be easier to list the men in the movie who aren't in love with her.  Everyone's attitude toward capital punishment seems odd as well.  People who work in prisons - especially prisons where executions are carried out -- become hardened to what they experience every day; they find ways to compartmentalize emotions like pity and empathy.  They have to do that in order to carry out their jobs and maintain their sanity.  But everyone who works at the prison in this movie seem to be deeply troubled by the prisoners' lot and extremely upset at the idea of the executions that were, in this era, all too routine.  Why would Ernie, the state executioner, constantly wail and agonize about the morality of his job?  The explanation we're given - that he sticks with it because he wants to be near Joan - doesn't make a lot of sense. Why, after all, did he take the job in the first place?  In fact, everyone in the movie seems to be against capital punishment as a matter of principle, with the exception of the cartoonishly slimy Manning.

Little that happens in this movie is remotely plausible, and plot contrivances pile up like cord wood.  The entire trip to the airport is cooked up so that we can get Johnny, Ernie and Manning in the same bar on the same evening. And what kind of airline schedules flights to Bermuda at two in the morning?

I know what you're thinking: a forgotten 76-year-old movie that was broadcast on a medium-market TV station in the middle of the night 43 years ago? Who cares?

Well, I can't help it.  I do care. And I always will.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Friday, May 12, 1972: The Black Pit of Dr. M (1956) / The Phantom of Crestwood (1933)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Mexico, Dr. Mazali  (Rafael Bertrand) and Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) have made a pact: the one who dies first will return from the afterlife and tell the other of what awaits beyond the grave.  One night Dr. Aldama falls gravely ill, and Dr. Mazali reminds him of his promise.  Soon Dr. Aldama dies.  On the evening the his funeral, Mazali summons his friend Dr. Gonzales (Luis Aragon) and a medium, in order to summon Dr. Aldama's spirit.  Contact with the spirit world is made, and Dr. Mazali asks if it is possible for him to travel to the afterlife and return to his own body.  Yes, says Dr. Aldama through the medium; but there is a terrible price to be paid for such a transgression against God's laws. However if Mazali wants to go through with it, he can take the journey into the afterlife at precisely 9:00 pm on the fifteenth of the month. After that, he is told, there will be no more opportunities to travel to the other side.

Meanwhile, night club dancer Patricia (Mapita Cortez) becomes agitated when she sees a young man in the club whom she recognizes, even though she has never met him. She has seen him in her dreams, just as he has seen her; troubled, she quits her job and returns home.  There she meets the late Dr. Aldama. She is not alarmed by this because while she knows she is Dr. Aldama's daughter, he left when she was still a baby, and does not remember him, nor has she ever seen a photograph of him. He asks her if she is in possession of a locket.  Patricia says she is, and Dr. Aldama tells her there is a secret compartment within it. He tells her how to open it, and Patricia discovers the hidden compartment and what is concealed within it -- a tiny key.

Aldama tells her to take the key to Dr. Mazali, who will know what to do with it.

Later, Dr. Mazali meets with Patricia and she gives him the key, saying the man she met was a representative of her father.  Dr. Mazali shows her a portrait of Aldama and Patricia confirms that this is the man she met.  Opening the box, they find Patricia's birth certificate, some jewelry clearly meant for her and a letter opener that bears a strange warning: "May the fire of hell consume the one who uses me for evil"....

Comments: Mexico isn't known for its film output, let alone its fantasy and horror films (aside from the unavoidable and deeply peculiar Santo series), but the Black Pit of Dr. M has a sumptuous look reminiscent of Hammer's period pieces and a creeping sense of dread that was clearly influenced by Universal's golden age.  It was directed by Fernando Mendez, who made a spate of similar horror films around this time, including El Vampiro and El Ataud Del Vampiro (both 1957).

There's no question that Dr. Mazali's decision to monkey around with the occult is not going to end well for anybody; but pure scientific curiosity is what drives him, not a desire for power or revenge or eternal life, which so often motivated the protagonists of Universal mellers. 

This film is also distinguished by a pretty densely-plotted script and performances that are skillful but perhaps a bit stodgy, with Rafael Bertrand providing a great deal of gravitas as Dr. Mazali and Luis Aragon functioning capably as his Dr. Watson. Mapita Cortez is excellent as the increasingly baffled Patricia. Mexican performers tend to be a bit over-the-top but we see an unusually understated cast here, with the exception of Carlos Ancira, playing Elmer the orderly, whose face is hideously disfigured with acid and who spends much of the movie skulking around Dr. Mazali's compound like a monster.  His performance is a bit remiscent of Pablo Alverez Rubio's hysterical scenery-chewing in the Spanish-language Dracula (1931). Throughout director Mendez does a very good job of building an eerie atmosphere of suspense, and overall this movie is a nice change of pace from the poverty-row programmers we've been seeing lately. Unfortunately the print I watched was a subtitled Spanish print, so I can't comment on the English dub. 

The Phantom of Crestwood

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire.  Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a young man whom Jenny had strung along --  until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship.  Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she'd been interested in was his money. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.

She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez).  In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be in Jenny Wren's possession. 

Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates --Eddie Mack (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) -- each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.

When the men arrive -- not suspecting a shakedown -- Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $150,000 as a farewell gift.  The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred.  They will find a way, she says -- because if they don't, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.

Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears  -- the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis, fearing he'll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: I've never seen a TV print of The Phantom of Crestwood, so I don't know if it included the original pre-credits sequence featuring the NBC radio orchestra and announcer Graham McNamee. It would make sense if the scene were deleted; TV viewers in the 1970s wouldn't have heard of McNamee, the radio drama referenced, or the contest connected with both.

The contest was a marketing gimmick applied to the theatrical release of The Phantom of Crestwood when it premiered in 1932.  NBC radio had broadcast a version of this old-dark-house thriller, but without an ending.  Listeners were encouraged to send in their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved. The winning entry, it was promised, would get a cash prize.  The studio hoped that this would get listeners excited about going to see the movie and find out if "their" ending was picked. 

The movie turned a solid profit for RKO, and probably would have done so regardless of the marketing campaign.  The Phantom of Crestwood is a ripping good yarn, one that actually works better with the gimmick set aside.

Like a lot of pre-code Hollywood movies, this one seems particularly daring because films became so tame after the Hayes Office was established.  The script here is fairly explicit in identifying Jenny Wren as a top-dollar escort, and when she demands that Priam throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, his scandalized look is priceless.  We are given to understand that Jenny has been to parties at Crestwood many times before -- but always as the entertainment, never as a guest. Now she will be there as an equal to Priam and the other men who had rented her affections, drinking their wine and rubbing elbows with their wives.

Jenny's decision to turn the tables on the wealthy bankers and politicians who had been using her no doubt struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, who would have enjoyed seeing the high rollers sweat it out for a change. 

Karen Morley leads a very strong cast here.  Morley's character is killed about a third of the way through, but that doesn't cut significantly into her screen time; she appears in numerous flashback sequences as each murder suspect describes their last interaction with her.  Ricardo Cortez, who played a lot of mobbed-up types in his career, is very engaging as Curtis, the smart and dogged gangster who missed his calling -- he would have made a great homicide detective. Pauline Frederick is appropriately starchy as the Andes family matriarch, and Anita Louise is quite convincing as Karen Morley's kid sister.  Louise was still a teenager when she appeared in The Phantom of Crestwood, and her career was a long one, stretching from the silent era into the age of television; she went on to play the mother on the series My Friend Flicka in the 1950s, and was doing guest shots on TV well into the 1970s.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Saturday, May 6, 1972: Return of the Ape Man (1944) / Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Synopsis: Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are conducting an experiment in suspended animation.  They bring a drunken vagrant (Ernie Adams) back to their laboratory, inject him with a serum, then freeze him solid for four months.  When they thaw him out, he's as good as new.  He happily takes the five-dollar bill Professor Gilmore gives him, unaware that any time has passed at all.

Professor Gilmore states that this is a triumph for Dexter's theories.  A man in this state of preservation, he says, could survive for a thousand years.  But Dexter is more circumspect.  There is only one way to prove that a man frozen for thousands of years could be revived, he says.  And that's to find someone who's been frozen for thousands of years and revive him!

Nine months later the two scientists are in the arctic, searching fruitlessly for a human body that's been preserved in a glacier.  Gilmore urges Dexter to give up: they've been searching without success for nearly a year.  Gilmore adds that he is a married man, and that his family needs him. Dexter mocks Gilmore's lack of resolve.

At that moment, the men see the outer edge of a glacier shear off from the rest.  They find the body of a man frozen in the ice, and they carve out the block and bring it back to their laboratory.

Using the techniques they've developed, the two scientists thaw out the caveman and restore it to life.  This, Gilmore says, is truly an amazing achievement!  Not yet, Dexter replies.  It will not be a truly amazing achievement until they are able to fully control the caveman.  And the only way to fully control the caveman is to take part of the brain of a modern man and add it to the caveman's brain!

Gilmore scoffs, noting that it would be impossible to find a volunteer for such an experiment.  But Dexter seems unconcerned by this.  Later, at a homecoming celebration for the two scientists, Gilmore notices that his brainy brother Steve isn't around.  Steve, we learn, has left with Dexter.  Gilmore rushes to Dexter's lab, afraid of what he will find....

Comments: Such is my contempt for this thoroughly idiotic film that I'm breaking my normal rule -- I'm refusing to watch it again. That wasn't an easy decision to make.

I like to imagine this blog as a collaborative effort. You and I, dear reader, are supposed to watch the movies together. We're a team, like Starsky and Hutch, or Boris and Natasha, or Abercrombie and Fitch. We whoop it up when things go well and we drown our sorrows when they don't.

 But I'm sorry; I have seen this train wreck a couple of times, and I can't do it again. I am only human, and I have my limits. If it helps, imagine me in the kitchen, messing around with snacks and drinks during the first feature. But I can't bring myself to watch.

This is Monogram at rock-bottom: the cramped, dingy sets, the lazy scriptwriting, the lackluster direction, the phoned-in performances, the surfeit of stock footage: it all congeals into a dismal mess. Both Lugosi and Carradine, who are used to working with substandard material without the slightest hint of embarrassment, seem oddly flat here.  It might have been the script, but then again both have been better with worse scripts. I suspect the real reason was that from top to bottom, at every step of the production, it was clear that no one cared the least about this movie.

That always makes me a little sad, to think that there are movies like that out there: movies that no one ever cared about.  People like to cite movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster or Teenagers From Outer Space as the worst movies ever made; but those movies weren't even close.  Those movies were made by filmmakers who, though inept, were following an inner vision, trying to make something good, and it shines through even the incompetence and lack of money and lack of imagination.

But movies like this are so much worse, because there is no beating heart anywhere inside them. They are written by hacks who had the idea assigned to them and who couldn't care less, directed by hollowed-out men who long ago should have gotten out of the business; everything feels seedy and cheap, and everyone on the set wishes they were somewhere else. If no one involved in making the film gave it a moment's thought or care, why should we?

Revenge of the Zombies

Synopsis: Scott Warrington arrives at the Louisiana mansion of his sister Lila and brother-in-law Dr. Max Von Altermann, a man whom Scott has never met.  Lila has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and Scott, thinking there may be trouble afoot, is traveling with Larry Adams, a private detective he's hired. Wary of Dr. Van Alterman's intentions, they decide to switch roles: Larry will pretend to be Scott and Scott will pretend to be Larry.

Dr. Altermann has secretly harnessed the power to bring the dead back to life as zombie slaves.  His own manservant Lazarus (James Baskett) and a number of the workers on the plantation are undead, though Scott and Larry as well as their comic-relief driver (Manton Morland) are unaware of it.

Soon Dr. Von Altermann meets with a mysterious representative of the Third Reich. Dr. Von Altermann gives a demonstration of zombie obedience to the visiting Nazi, explaining that an army of the undead could never be defeated, since they will continue to function no matter how much damage they sustain in battle. He reveals that he himself killed Lila to use her in his diabolical experiments; to him, Lila was unimportant compared to the Nazi zombie army he's preparing.

But Dr. Altermann's big dreams are threatened by some inconvenient happenings: Lila's body keeps wandering around, and even Scott and Larry have seen it on the move. And the zombies are unexpectedly starting to disobey his orders....

Comments: I wasn't looking forward to sitting through another Monogram mad scientist cheapie with John Carradine hamming it up and Manton Morland doing his bulgy-eyed, feets-don't-fail-me-now schtick. But I have to admit that Revenge of the Zombies is actually kind of fun, partly because it doesn't take itself too seriously (really, it's hard to say the words "Nazi zombie army" without smiling), and partly because of its interesting supporting cast.

Carradine's high-camp mad scientist -- jabbering about indestructible zombie soldiers fighting for the Reich -- is at least entertaining, and if you've seen one Manton Morland performance you've literally seen them all.  And the ostensible leads --Robert Lowery, Gale Storm and Mauritz Hugo are dull as dishwater.

But three performances stand out. James Baskett's Lazarus is eerie and effective due entirely to body language and an electric physical presence; he actually has few lines. His song to summon the zombies is remarkably haunting, more Val Lewton than Monogram. Madame Sul-Te-Wan is great as Beulah, a cackling domestic with a canny knowledge of the occult.  And Sybil Lewis as Rosella is a revelation. Like Baskett she was a star of the black cinema of the time; she is so luminous here that she bursts through her minor role and steals every scene she's in. She almost steals the movie.