Saturday, July 4, 2015

Friday, June 8, 1972: Bury Me Dead (1947)

Synopsis: A funeral is being held for Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart), a woman killed in a stable fire on her family's estate.  But almost as soon as this fact is established, we learn that Barbara isn't dead at all.  She attends the funeral hiding behind a black veil, musing that her husband Rod Carlin (Mark Daniels) doesn't seem very broken up about her death.  When the graveside service has concluded, Barbara approaches the family attorney, Michael Dunn (Hugh Beaumont) and reveals to him that she's still alive.  She tells him that she believes someone started the fire in an attempt to kill her, but got the wrong person; the body recovered from the horse barn was burned beyond recognition and identified only by a diamond necklace that belonged to Barbara.

Barbara is particularly troubled by the question of who was actually killed in the fire, because she thinks it might be her younger sister Rusty (Cathy O'Donnell).  Rusty has a history of mental illness and often disappears for extended lengths of time. But she finds Rusty safe and sound, though still embittered that she was cut out of her father's will because she was adopted. With Rusty eliminated as a possible victim, she goes to confront Rod, who claims to be delighted that Barbara is still alive -- even though he has been carrying on with goodtime girl Helen Lawrence (Sonia Darren), who had previously told Rod that she'd like to be the next Mrs. Carling. 

Barbara had had a dalliance of her own with dim-witted palooka George (Greg McClure), who'd previously been seen around with Helen. Rusty still harbors a grudge against Barbara for stealing the big lug away from her, but it might be that Barbara was trying to save Rusty from a bad situation. 

Barbara finds there are plenty of people who might have wanted her dead. But not only does she not know who committed the murder, she still doesn't know who the victim was....

Comments: I've written about Bury Me Dead once before, and as often happens I felt more charitable toward the film after a second viewing.

Don't get me wrong. The movie has plenty of flaws; it's cheap and a bit dreary, its second act is muddled and a lot of plot points appear to have been thrown in simply to pad its 65-minute running time. 

But it does have a few things going for it. June Lockhart, who seems a good deal older than her 22 years, effectively anchors the film as Barbara, and Hugh Beaumont is convincing as the buttoned-up family attorney Michael Dunn. I've written favorably in the past about Cathy O'Donnell's portrayal of Rusty, and I also liked Sonia Darren, who didn't have a huge role but still managed to stand out as Helen.

The movie also gets off the blocks quickly with the fire that supposedly kills Barbara. It's an exciting way to start a movie and the central mysteries -- who started the fire, and who died in it? -- are raised in the first few minutes, and for a poverty row quickie, that's a definite plus. Don't look too closely at the stock footage used for the fire, though -- it's clear that the structure that's burning is a house, not a barn.

Something that strikes me as a little unusual for a film from this era is its understated but unmistakable sexual politics. Barbara's estranged husband Rod is carrying on with Helen -- not an unusual plot point in a movie from this era -- but what is unusual is that Barbara gives as good as she gets, engaging in a fling with George. The fact that George is Rusty's boyfriend at the time makes her seem all the more wanton by the standards of 1947. Also, Barbara is not only the protagonist but an active agent throughout, which wasn't the case in Lockhart's starring role in She Wolf of London -- a film in which the woman presented to us as the protagonist had almost no influence on the events around her.

A full restoration of this film would be nice, but is probably unlikely to ever happen. John Alton's compositions are intriguing and were no doubt perfectly lit, but you can't tell that from the muddy prints used to strike the DVD copies.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saturday, June 3, 1972: Dr. Renault's Secret (1942) / Three Strangers (1946)

Synopsis: Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) arrives in a remote French village to see his fiance, Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts) and to meet her father, the renowned scientist Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco). Forbes stops at an inn near the village, where he is supposed to meet someone who will take him to the Renault house. But he learns that they will have to cross over a bridge that has been washed out; and as a result he is stranded in the town overnight. He meets Renault's gardener Rogell (Mike Mazursky) and another of Dr. Renault's servants, a strange taciturn man named Noel (J. Carrol Naish).

Noel says he is from Java, and he seems gentle and sensitive, but also uncomfortable, apologizing repeatedly for his behavior, even when he's done nothing wrong. But he becomes enraged when a drunk inn patron makes a remark that Noel sees as insulting to Madelon. Noel grabs the man and seems ready to attack him. But Larry calms him down and the situation is defused.

When he goes up to retire that night Larry finds the drunk has stumbled into his room by mistake and is snoring away on the bed. Larry, amused, goes to sleep in the drunk's unoccupied room next door. But in the morning the drunk is found murdered, strangled by a very powerful assailant. The police question everyone closely, particularly Rogell, who has a criminal record, as well as Noel, who was seen to argue with the murder victim a few hours before the crime.

The police are unsure of whether the intended victim was the drunk or Larry himself, who was after all sleeping in the wrong room. Nevertheless, Larry, Rogell and Noel head out to the Renault estate. Noel drives, and as the car reaches a bend in the road, he abruptly slows the car down to a crawl. To Larry's astonishment, as they proceed around the curve they see a dog crossing the road. Had Noel not slowed down he would have hit it. But how did he know it was there?

Larry seems to find a kindred spirit in Dr. Renault, who has a keen and curious mind. But something bothers Larry about Noel, and he can't put his finger on what it is. Noel seems gentle and kind, extremely loyal to Madelon, but can fly into a murderous rage if provoked. Animals don't seem to like him, and he doesn't seem to like them. He has enormous strength -- more than any one man ought to have. He has senses much keener than any human. And it comforts him greatly when the barber in town gives him a good close shave....

Comments: This Fox production is more than a little silly, and we're not particularly surprised when we learn the titular "secret": Noel is a surgically altered and extensively manscaped gorilla. At least it's a change of pace from the Universal horror standards and the poverty row cheapies that we've been seeing lately. This is only the second time we've seen Dr. Renault's Secret on Horror Incorporated, and I'll admit I felt a bit more kindly to it this time. One reason is that knowing the big reveal in advance means we're not going to snort in derision when it arrives. Another is the performance of J. Carrol Naish, who really commits himself to a role that probably doesn't deserve it. We are meant to feel pity for Noel, since he didn't ask for what happened to him, and Nash does the best anyone could reasonably have done with it; nevertheless the premise is so absurd that it's hard to take any of it seriously.

But here's a question: why should this particular premise strike us as ridiculous? After all, you and I have been sitting up late at night, week in and week out, watching movies about monsters made of sewn-together corpses, and people who transform into bats when they're not drinking blood and sleeping in coffins, and guys who turn into wolfmen, and mummified corpses that spring to life and chase people around. What does this movie ask of us that the others don't?

Perhaps the problem isn't that the premise is too broad; perhaps it's too narrow.  We can imagine black magic or alchemy turning a gorilla into a man; it's hard to imagine any amount of surgery (not to mention shaving) that could accomplish such a feat. After all, surgery could conceivably alter a gorilla to resemble a man in some fashion, and it might even grant the gorilla the physical attributes needed to speak, but it seems extremely unlikely that an ape's mind could be similarly altered to resemble that of a human (however, if the latter were possible, that feat alone would be a Nobel-worthy discovery). It's never clearly explained why Dr. Renault wants to undertake such a project in the first place (he apparently hasn't published anything he's learned from these experiments), except to simply prove that he can make a gorilla pass for a man. But it doesn't really make sense; it would be like someone trying to surgically alter a camel so that it can pass for a horse. Even if it's possible, what's the point?

Motive was always a weak link with movies like this. I'm sure it made mad scientist movies easy to write; motive was built into the character. If anyone asks, "Well, that's silly. Why would he do that? What's the motive?" the answer is always the same: "Well, he's a mad scientist.  That's what they do". The same tactic is used these days for serial killer movies.  "Um, why does Jigsaw kidnap people and force them to take part in ghastly, sadistic games?" "Hey listen, he's a serial killer. That's what they do."

Three Strangers

Synopsis: London barrister Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is walking along the street when he meets beautiful Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald). After a bit of flirtatious small talk, she invites him up to her apartment. Once there, he is dismayed to find another man already there, a cheerful tippler named Johnny West (Peter Lorre). Johnny was lured up to her apartment with the same come-hither glance that roped in Arbutny.

Crystal reveals the reason for bringing the two men to her apartment. Crystal has in her possession a statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of good fortune. According to legend, Crystal says, if three strangers make a wish over the statue at midnight of the Chinese new year, the wish will be granted. If there is one wish they can agree on, they can all share in the good fortune provided by Kwan Yin.

Johnny has an Irish sweepstakes ticket, and he suggests they all wish for it to be a winner, then sign an agreement to divide any winnings from the ticket.

The others quickly agree to this, and a contract of sorts is hastily written up. The clock strikes midnight as the strangers concentrate on their wish, and it seems for a moment that the statue is smiling at them; but soon the moment is gone and the three go their separate ways.

We then follow the strangers in turn and discover that each one has arrived at a moment of crisis in their lives. Crystal's estranged husband David (Alan Napier) has fallen in love with a Canadian woman and wants a divorce, but Crystal refuses to grant one. Arbutny has made a series of disastrous investments with money entrusted to him by the widowed Lady Beladon (Rosalind Ivan). Facing professional ruin when the secret gets out, he has recklessly decided to propose marriage to her in order to conceal his financial mismanagement. Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen in with a rough crowd, and he is currently being sought for a crime he didn't commit. His only hope for redemption lies with his girlfriend, the devoted Janet (Marjorie Riordon).

Johnny ends up in the hospital, and only by chance discovers that the Irish sweepstakes ticket won. But unbeknownst to him, Arbutny and Shackleford have each decided, for their own reasons, that Johnny need never know about the money....

Comments: John Huston co-wrote this gentle fantasy about a magical statue and the lives it changes at midnight of the Chinese New Year. The presence of two of Huston's alums from The Maltese Falcon have led to speculation over the years that it was written as a sequel -- or perhaps a prequel -- to that film, with Mary Astor originally intended to play Crystal. But I have a hard time believing this. The characters in this film don't really resemble The Maltese Falcon's Mr. Gutman, Joel Cairo or Bridget O'Shaughnessy; so it seems more likely that this was just an attempt to bring some familiar screen pairings together in a completely different story. This had already happened once with Casablanca, which reunited Bogart, Greenstreet and Lorre. One big advantage of the old studio system was that you really could create a repertory company that audiences felt familiar with.  That might not have helped box office to a great extent, but I'm sure it didn't hurt.

Anyway, this is somewhat more light-hearted fare than we usually see on Horror Incorporated, and it's lovely to see Greenstreet and Lorre together. Greenstreet's portrayal of the fussy attorney Arbutny is quite winning, and Lorre plays to perfection the part of the good-natured loser who has a chance to be redeemed by the love of a good woman. Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite convincing as Crystal, who's willing to bet on the supernatural in order to keep the man she loves from leaving her. 

Yeah yeah, it's not horror. So what? We've seen a lot of stuff that doesn't qualify as horror on this show. Three Strangers is a nice movie, okay? We'll get back to drinking blood and sewing together corpses next week.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Friday, June 2, 1972: Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: After years of laboring as an extra or a walk-on in Hollywood movies, Boris Karloff won a prominent role in Howard Hawks' 1931 drama The Criminal Code. This led to a couple of other substantial roles, including the monster in James Whale's Frankenstein. Karloff worked on Behind the Mask after shooting on Frankenstein wrapped but before it was released. Frankenstein's success greatly changed the trajectory of the 44-year-old actor's career. His sudden stardom allowed the lanky Englishman to appear, improbably, as the lead in a number of films, often billed simply as "Karloff". In the case of Behind the Mask the horror elements were played up in the promotional material, and Karloff himself was hyped far more prominently than his role warranted (in fact most of the movie posters feature a glowering Karloff, suggesting that he -- and not Everett Van Sloan -- is the film's antagonist). This is a time-honored cheat that movie studios engage in -- it happened to Lugosi all the time, really -- and the tactic isn't employed too egregiously here.

Of course the most infamous use of this trick was the dismal Dudley Moore comedy Best Defense (1984); hoping to cash in on the sudden stardom of comedian Eddie Murphy, who had a small role, Paramount's marketing campaign strongly insinuated that he and Moore were co-stars. In fact the Murphy scenes were quickly shot and tacked on after the film had tested poorly with audiences, making the deception that much worse.

Karloff actually does have a fairly large role in Behind the Mask, though the character he plays, Henderson, is simply a lackey of the mysterious Dr. X. One interesting thing about the film is that it gives us a pretty clear picture of what Karloff's career would have looked like had he never been offered a role in Frankenstein: he would have played endless variants of the Henderson character. Karloff would have been remembered -- if he was remembered at all -- as a character actor who specialized in underworld middle-men, gaunt crooks in cheap suits, and half-smart grifters. In the end, he ended up playing the mad scientist over and over again; but at least he was a leading man in such films.

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.