Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Saturday, April 15, 1972: Dr. X (1932) / The Man Who Returned To Life (1942)

Synopsis: A vicious serial killer is on the loose in New York, a cannibal who only strikes when the Moon is full. The police realize that all of the murders are centered around the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). The method of killing is strangulation, the bodies mutilated afterward with a unique type of scalpel only used at the medical academy. The cops recruit Dr. Xavier to help find which of the four eccentric surgeons in his employ might be the murderer.

As it turns out, all four of the doctors make pretty good suspects.  We have the sour Dr. Wells, who has studied the practices of cannibals; Dr Duke, whom we may or may not rule out because he is in a wheelchair but who is kind of a jerk anyway; Dr. Rowitz, a researcher of a more lyrical bent, though still a weirdo; and Dr. Haines, who seems to be hiding a number of secrets, including a penchant for lad magazines.  Oh, and he might have taken a nibble or two of human flesh in his day.

Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Lee Taylor  (Lee Tracy) is trying to scoop the competition in getting the facts of the case, and he isn't above posing as a corpse in the city morgue to get access.  Along the way he falls for Dr. Xavier's daughter Joanne (Fay Wray).  But as Dr. Xavier hatches a plan to catch the man dubbed the "Moon Killer" by the papers, Lee also has to face the possibility that the killer may be none other than Dr. Xavier himself...

Comments: Like Night of Terror, the horror elements of this First National picture are leavened by a goofball newspaper reporter as protagonist. This device allows the lead character to provide his own comic relief, thus keeping the audience from taking things too seriously (interestingly, the belated - and much cheaper - sequel Return of Dr. X would also employ a stumble-bum reporter as its lead character).

What sets Dr. X apart from those other two films is its relatively lavish production values. Both Night of Terror and Return of Dr. X were unassuming programmers. Only Dr. X comes across as an "A" picture, something the studio would be proud to roll out to the public.

The film's air of respectability was probably helped by the fact that it was based on a stage play, and director Michael Curtiz does a good job keeping it from looking stagebound. The film opens on a fog-shrouded waterfront set, and both the Xavier lab complex and the Xavier household sets are extremely large and detailed. 

The film stars Lee Tracy and Fay Wray, two stars who had similar career trajectories: they were big in the early 1930s, but both quickly faded from prominence. Wray is still remembered today for her turn in Merriam C. Cooper's 1933 smash King Kong; Tracy has been largely forgotten. The title role is played by Lionel Atwill, at the top of his game as the avuncular head of the research institute that may be harboring a killer. Atwill's performance is often criticized as overly plummy, but I think he did about as well as he could with it; after all, Dr. Xavier himself is a red herring character, and we know that he must be at least a little nutty -- after all, three out of the four researchers on his payroll have experimented with cannabilism. What are the odds?

The Man Who Returned To Life

Synopsis: It's October of 1941, and George Bishop (John Howard) has a great life.  He has a beautiful wife and a delightful five-year-old daughter and a loyal dog.   He just got a big promotion at work.  He owns a nice-looking house with a white picket fence in sunny Ridgewood, California.  Everything in George's life is just swell -- and in the movies, that can mean only one thing.

Sure enough, as George leafs through the morning paper, he finds a news item that shocks him to his core: a jury in Blissville, Maryland has convicted a man named Clyde Beebe of the murder of David Jameson eight years earlier, and Beebe has been sentenced to hang for the crime.

"Clyde Beebe to hang!" George gasps. "For murdering me?"

Bishop hastily makes plans to leave town, mumbling to his wife that there is "something I need to take care of". 

Flashback to 1933.  Bishop is living in Blissville, Maryland under the name of David Jameson.  He's been in the community for five years, but because this is a small town, he's still a newcomer in their eyes.  He works at the local bank and has nearly paid off the loan on a farmhouse he's bought in the area. 

Jameson is sweet on pretty Daphne Turner (Marcella Martin), but she is being pursued aggressively by local troublemaker Clyde Beebe (Paul Guilfoyle). Meanwhile, Jameson himself is being ruthlessly pursued by Clyde's sister Beth Beebe (Ruth Ford).  Some friendly locals advise Jameson to steer clear of the ne'er-do-well Beebes, and Jameson agrees, but in a town this size it's easier said than done.

Beth has been telling everyone in town that she and Jameson are an item, and she goes so far as to invite herself to social events with him.  One night she brings up the M-word, and Jameson is shocked and appalled, and his rejection sends Beth running away in tears.  Clyde Beebe, hearing about the insult to his sister, confronts Jameson and attacks him with a knife.  Jameson isn't badly wounded, but it's clear that the Beebes will be trouble for the foreseeable future.

Jameson and Daphne Turner begin to grow closer.  Daphne has been helping sketch designs for improving the farmhouse, and as they talk excitedly about what the house needs they realize they are making future plans together.  Jameson proposes to her, and she accepts.  When Beth hears the news she is devastated, unable to leave her room for days. 

One afternoon Jameson is walking down Blissville's main street when Beth Beebe pulls up in a car.  She seems very calm and even cheerful, congratulating Jameson on his wedding plans and offering him a lift.  Jameson, relieved that Beth is taking it so well, accepts -- but once they are underway he discovers that she has a sinister plan.  She has already told everyone she knows that the two of them have eloped, and she has arranged for a witness and a justice of the peace to marry them at the Beebe place.  Jameson makes clear he wants no part of it, but Beth will not be deterred -- she is clearly off her rocker.  The car is now hurtling along the highway at 70 miles an hour, so Jameson can't jump out.  Fighting Beth for the wheel, the car goes off the road and Beth is killed in the resulting crash. 

Jameson is arrested, and charged with murder.  Everyone in town seems to think he is guilty; and when the charge is reduced to manslaughter,  Clyde Beebe rounds up a posse.  Released on bail, Jameson returns to the farmhouse, but through the darkened front window he can see that someone's rigged a shotgun to kill the first person who walks in through the door....

Comments: 1942 was a busy year for director Lew Landers. He was averaging a picture a month for Columbia in those days, including this little programmer. The Man Who Returned To Life clocks in at just over 60 minutes, but spends so much time setting up its central conflict that it races around in its last few minutes trying to tie up loose ends.

The movie sports a premise that's intriguing, but difficult to execute.  From the outset we're treated to hefty plot contrivances and bouts of extremely unlikely behavior from the characters.  For example, why would a newspaper in California report the pending execution of a murderer in Maryland?  If the case were so sensational that it would warrant nationwide press coverage, wouldn't he have heard of it before now?

Why would anyone believe that Jameson murdered Beth?  What was the alleged motive? On what basis would the prosecutor charge him with manslaughter, let alone murder? Why would Jameson, upon discovering Clyde Beebe's plot to kill him, jump on a freight train and travel to California as a hobo, abandoning his property and fiance? 

And really, why should Jameson feel so much guilt about Clyde Beebe being charged for his murder in the first place?  Granted, Beebe didn't succeed in committing the crime.  But he fully intended to succeed, thought he had succeeded, and in fact did kill someone  - the hobo from the railroad camp (amusingly, after Jameson exonerates Beebe for his own murder, one of the swirling headlines in the final moments indicates that Beebe was charged with the murder of the hobo - a crime for which he will presumably hang).

Interestingly, it's never clear to us how much -- if anything -- Jameson's wife Jane knows about his past.  After reading the newspaper headline he tells her that there is "something I need to take care of".  We see stock footage of a commercial airliner flying cross-country (an extremely expensive way to travel in those days, but handy if you're racing to stop an unjust execution).  After Beebe is cleared of the crime, we get a series of swirling headlines, indicating that Jameson has been cleared of the manslaughter charge.  More stock footage of an airplane flight follows, and an image of a telegram, telling his wife he's on his way back.  Then he is reunited with his loving family.  Is he still George Bishop, or has he reverted to David Jameson?  Did he tell his wife who he really is, or did she know all along that he was a fugitive?  We're never told.

John Howard makes Jameson / Bishop a likable and sympathetic fellow, and Lucille Fairbanks makes a fetching Jane, though she is hampered, as many women of the time were, by a paper-thin characterization.  She is a Saintly Wife and that's all we get to see of her.

But by far the most interesting character is the delusional Beth Beebe, played with a convincing aura of nuttiness by Ruth Ford.  Ford conveys slightly off-kilter with tremendous skill.  She never overdoes it, which somehow makes her all the more frightening. The scene where she's about to crash the car is the highlight of the movie; with nothing more than a facial expression we buy completely that Beth has lost her marbles and feels she has absolutely nothing to lose.  It's a splendid and understated performance.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Interlude: Alien Invasion: Films From Another World!

If you're reading this blog (and I suppose you are), that means you have a love for old horror films. Well, have I got news for you. Our good friends at All-Star Video and Take-Up Productions have arranged a special treat: three classic alien invasion films, screened at the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery in Minneapolis!

First up is The Blob (1958), 86 minutes of rompin' stompin' alien-on-the-loose action, as a gloppy piece of extraterrestrial protoplasm acquires a taste of human flesh and goes on a rampage across a small Pennsylvania town. It features a young Steve McQueen in the lead role.  The Blob screens Wednesday, September 10 at the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery in Minneapolis (this is the cemetery at the corner of Lake and Cedar). The show begins at dusk.

On Wednesday, September 24, it's Plan 9 From Outer Space, everyone's favorite worst movie. From Take-Up Production's description:

Chatty, badly-dressed aliens want to take over the Earth - but which of their cunning plans should be deployed? How about Plan 9, which involves an army of radio-controlled army of zombies and vampires? Ed Wood's jaw-droppingly awful production is legendary for its laughable dialogue, dreadful acting and hapless special effects.

Finally on October 8, we have The Thing From Another World (the only one of the three to have been seen on Horror Incorporated). This one involves the hunt for a homicidal monster on the loose in an arctic research station! It's a slam-bang horror film, one of the best ever made, and I will definitely be there. I hope you can make it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Friday, April 14, 1972: Cat People (1942)


Synopsis: Nautical engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) one afternoon at the zoo.  Irena is sketching a black panther as it paces in its cage.  The two hit it off in a meet-cute sort of way, and Irena allows Oliver to walk her home.

Irena, it turns out, lives alone in a large and tastefully-furnished apartment nearby, and seems grateful for Oliver's company.  She tells him that she hasn't made any friends since moving to the city.  Oliver ends up staying well past dark, and as he leaves he asks to see her again the next day and she agrees.

Feeling she needs a companion, Oliver buys a kitten for her at a local pet shop, but when he gives it to her the kitten spits and backs away fearfully.  Irena tells him that cats don't like her.  He trades the kitten in for  a bird, and this seems to please her, but when she reaches inside the cage the bird panics and quickly dies.

Before long, Oliver and Irena are engaged. On their wedding day they have dinner at a local restaurant with Oliver's co-workers, including Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) who acts like one of the guys in spite of being young, pretty and apparently available. Alice has picked this Serbian restaurant in Irena's honor, and Irena finds it delightful.  The mood is quite jovial, but a strange woman approaches their table and speaks to Irena briefly  in Serbian, calling her "sister".  Irena is shaken by this encounter.

Returning home that night, she confides to Oliver that she isn't able to consummate the marriage right away -- she speaks vaguely of being frightened by an old family curse and asks him to be patient.  Oliver, who has  "nice guy" written all over him, agrees. They begin sleeping in separate rooms.

Weeks pass and nothing changes.  Oliver gently suggests that Irena see a psychiatrist, and she agrees; but after only one session with the oily Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) she stops going. When Oliver finds out that she's abandoned her sessions he is angry.  Irena is angry in turn at all the time Oliver is spending with Alice, and angrier still when she learns that Oliver has confided to her Irena's reluctance to consummate the marriage.  What she doesn't know is that Alice has also confessed to Oliver that she has always carried a torch for him.

Irena reluctantly goes back to see Dr. Judd, and the nature of her affliction becomes clear: she believes that if she becomes sexually aroused, she will turn into a deadly panther. Judd decides he's going to dissuade the beautiful Irena of this notion by seducing her, not knowing that the curse is real....

Comments:  I don't know what kind of ratings Horror Incorporated  enjoyed during its run, or indeed if any such records (which I have to assume would have been gathered for the KSTP sales team, even for a show that aired so late at night) still exist. But we can safely assume that the show was a success, and bested its competition in that less-than-vital midnight to 3am timeslot.

We can assume this not only because of the show's longevity (it ran for a good decade), or because it still has a following after 40+ years (unlike, say, KSTP's contemporaneous late-night staple The Henry Wolf Show) but also because it spun itself off to other day-parts, popping up in the months between football and baseball season as a noontime Saturday show and on rare occasions (as it does tonight) on Friday night.  On this particular Friday we have one feature, and it's a good one: Val Lewton's Cat People.

Cat People is an eerie and delicious film, and captures perfectly not only Lewton's unusual style but also the dark thematic freight in which he traffics. Irena's world of magic and ancient curses is quite naturally seen, by everyone from Oliver to Alice to Dr. Judd, as a foolish superstition, and it is deemed important by everyone that she be convinced it's simply a delusion.  Once this is accomplished, it is assumed, the problem will go away.

But as is often the case in horror films, you mock the Devil at your own risk. Everyone who dismisses the curse ends up endangered by it; and even Irena, who wishes wholeheartedly that her curse is simple nonsense just as Oliver and Judd keep telling her, ultimately pays a price for turning her back on her true nature. In a way the "cat woman" who speaks to her in the restaurant has sealed her fate; Irena knows the woman has overheard her and her friends celebrating her wedding, and her look of dread after the woman calls her "sister" is palpable.  Irena knows that she has no business getting married, not with the curse that hangs over her head. But like many people in horror films she is seduced by the rational world and its promise of a universe safely under our control.

When Dr. Judd meets Irena at the zoo he tells her that her obsession with the panther in its cage is related to a very human attraction to chaos and self-destruction.  He talks about the innate human desire for death -- a Freudian belief which seems to peg him as a practitioner of psychotherapy, a discipline that is rare today but which was fairly common in the 1940s.

Psychotherapy was rooted in the Victorian era and its curiously repressed attitudes toward sexuality. Sex -- to the Victorian mind -- was closely related to death, an idea this film takes quite literally.

Dr. Judd assumes that everything Irena says is shorthand for something else. He takes nothing she says seriously. At one point Irena points out to Judd that he doesn't see any difference between the mind and the soul, and he doesn't disagree with this.  But we can't blame Dr. Judd for misinterpreting her malady because we come from the same rational world he does. We too view Irena's curse as palpably, painfully Freudian in nature: her sexual desires are so strong that she is afraid of them,  and believes that unleashing them will destroy not only her, but everyone around her.

Lots of filmmakers have tried to imitate Lewton's particular style, but no one has come close to succeeding. A lot of painful ripoffs followed the success of Cat People, among them the Horror Incorporated staples She-Wolf of London and The Beast With 5 Fingers  -- but the clumsiness of these imitators only underscores Lewton's singular talent.

Lewton always made the most from the acting talent he had at hand, and this film is no exception.  Simone Simon is beautiful and appropriately mysterious as the troubled Irena; Kent Smith's performance isn't showy but his squeaky-clean, all-American manner is exactly right for the part.  Jane Randolph's Alice is good-hearted and funny, a bit like the lead actress' best friend in a screwball comedy.  And Tom Conway is pitch-perfect as the oily and immoral Dr. Judd.  I can't think of a picture where I've been happier to see a character get killed by a leopard.

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 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.