Monday, March 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brute Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Friday, May 19, 1972: Kronos (1956)

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

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

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

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

Susie! Speak to me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buried Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Phantom of Crestwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revenge of the Zombies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Friday, May 5, 1972:The Devil Commands (1940) / The Black Raven (1943)

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head. 

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.

Blair's colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter's homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration -- forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love.

Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.  Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.

To his astonishment, he finds that Helen's unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. 

The building's maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead -- she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.  Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.

Blair's idea is to use Mrs. Walters' naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like the amplifying grid in a vacuum tube. 

Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.

Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. 

He convinces Blair's housekeeper, a local woman named Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what's in Blair's secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock -- a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads....

Comments: Wallace MacDonald was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades who emerged from the silent era, remaking his career less from a desire to expand his horizons than from sheer necessity.  He'd been a silent film actor since 1914, appearing in some notable pictures, including The Primrose Path (1925), opposite Clara Bow; as the title character in the serial Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and as the ill-fated Peter Godolphin in The Sea Hawk (1924).

The silent era ended too abruptly for many actors, who couldn't adapt to the times and were swept out of the business.  But MacDonald turned to writing with some success (his credits included the Gene Autry vehicle The Phantom Empire, 1935), and had even better luck as a producer at Columbia, starting with Parole Racket in 1937, and carrying on through a slew of unspectacular but solid programmers, including The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which has popped up a few times on Horror Incorporated, as well as a cycle of Boris Karloff mad scientist pictures, all of which we've seen late at night on channel 5: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939); The Man With Nine Lives (1940); Before I Hang (1940) ; and tonight's feature, The Devil Commands.

Of the four, this one is by far the best, for a number of reasons.  In a nutshell, this was the only film of the series to be directed by Edward Dmytryk, who manages to imbue the low-budget affair with a keen atmosphere of dread.  The scene in which the soft-spoken Karloff faces off with the soft-spoken sheriff played by Kenneth MacDonald ( a stage name, by the way  - he is no relation to Wallace MacDonald) is memorable because it's played so differently than similar scenes in similar pictures.

The premise of The Devil Commands is no less absurd than those of the other
Karloff films at Columbia, but somehow Dmytryk manages, through small tricks of verisimilitude, to pull it off.  He seems to understand that horror films must remain plausible, even when the premise is unlikely - in fact, it plausibility becomes more important with an unlikely premise, not less important.

And unlike the other Karloff mad scientist pictures at Columbia, this one doesn't actually feature a mad scientist at all.  The grief-stricken Dr. Blair is motivated not by revenge nor bloodlust nor vanity.   He wants, quite simply, to be reunited with someone he has lost, and it is this desire that connects him with the gullible Karl and the cynical Mrs. Walters.  In a sense all three are in the same business, though they are all approaching the afterlife from different angles.  Karl is a wide-eyed believer; Mrs. Walters a crooked seer; and Blair a scientist who believes that his rational approach will make the afterlife logical and accessible to him.  He does learn his lesson, but as is often the case in these sort of movies, he learns it too late.

The Black Raven

Synopsis: Amos Bradford (George Zucco) is the proprietor of an inn in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border.  The inn is called the Black Raven and, we learn, "The Black Raven" is Bradford's underworld handle as well; every criminal seems to know who he is. Bradford is a sort of fixer, who can help wanted men disappear into Canada; but unlike most of his mobbed-up clients, he appears to be an independent player, without loyalty to any particular syndicate.

One dark and stormy night, Bradford receives an unexpected visitor: a man named Whitey, who comes in the door with a gun and a beef against Bradford.  It seems the Black Raven had double-crossed Whitey and sent him to prison; but before Whitey can take his revenge he is overpowered by Bradford's handyman Andy (Glenn Strange). They tie Whitey up in the back room, planning to return him to the authorities and the ten-year-sentence he still has to serve, when another man arrives.  The man asks for help getting across the border and shows Bradford the front page of a New York paper: the man is a fugitive named Mike Bardoni. Bradford asks why a big mob figure like Bardoni would be trying to flee the country, and Bardoni replies that he has fallen out of favor with mob boss Tim Winfield and is now on the run. Bradford convinces him to book a room at the inn, as there can be no crossing the border tonight as long as the storm is raging and the bridges are all underwater.

Soon another visitor arrives: nervous milquetoast Horace Weatherby, like Bardoni, has learned that all the bridge crossings into Canada are washed out in the storm, and he must stay at the Black Raven for the night.  Weatherby carries a satchel that he is unwilling to part with; suspicious, Bardoni "accidentally" knocks it to the floor, where it briefly opens to reveal $50,000 in cash. 

The next visitors are a couple. Lee Winfield is the daughter of mobster Tim Winfield; she and her boyfriend Allen Bentley want to slip across the border to Canada to elope, but like the others they are unable to cross because of the storm and must stay at the Black Raven.  Soon more visitors arrive: Tim Winfield and his goons, who are looking to break up the planned nuptials of Lee and Allen....

Comments: This likable thriller shares a lot of DNA with last weeks' The Mad Monster. Both are PRC productions, both are are directed by Sam Newfield, and both star George Zucco and Glenn Strange.  But in fact the films are quite different in tone. The Mad Monster attempted to ape the classic horror films of Universal.  The Black Raven, by contrast, tries to emulate the hard-bitten crime dramas of Warner Brothers.  In fact, The Black Raven might be considered a low-rent interpolation of Casablanca.

Instead of  a saloon in occupied Morocco, we have an inn near the Canadian border.  Instead of letters of transit that allow travel to the United States via Lisbon, we have the promise of safe passage into Ontario. Instead of Nazi apparatchiks, we have New York mobsters. Instead of Humphrey Bogart as the jaded Rick Blaine, we have George Zucco as the jaded Amos Bradford, a free agent who lives by his own code. And it seems that, like Rick's Cafe Americain, everybody comes to the Black Raven -- at least, everybody connected to Tim Whitfield.

Now, I will concede that I could be dead wrong about this.  I don't know if anyone's ever noticed a resemblance between the two films.  But it did occur to me while I was watching this one, and I think it's certainly possible that the screenwriters lifted elements, either intentionally or subconsciously, from Warner's hit film of the previous year. 

George Zucco really excels as a leading man here; his smooth delivery is reminiscent of George Sanders' debonair character The Falcon (which might have also influenced this picture); Zucco's cultured but slightly sinister demeanor is perfectly suited for his role here.

But aside from Zucco the acting is uniformly bland; the most interesting actor on the roster is Charles Middleton, who plays the Sheriff; he was Ming the Merciless in the final Flash Gordon serial,  Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Glenn Strange does just fine as Bradford's handyman / bodyguard Andy, and while it's clear from this performance that he just isn't an actor, he does well enough for a PRC production, and he probably appreciated not being buried under pounds of makeup for a change. And presumably, he wasn't asked to do much in the way of stunt work.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saturday, April 29, 1972: The Mad Monster (1942) / Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) is working out of a hidden lab in his house in the country. Not long ago he had been a respected college professor, but his unorthodox views made him a laughingstock in the scientific community and he was forced to resign his post at the university.

His beautiful daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) doesn't understand her father's penchant for secrecy, which extends to his disapproval of her boyfriend Tom Gregory (Tommy Downs), who is, we quickly learn, a big-city reporter with a nose for sensational stories.

Cameron nurses tremendous resentment against his former colleagues who rejected his theories about creating a formula that can short-circuit evolutionary biology and make humans into primitive beasts.  As Cameron works on his formula, he experiments without conscience on simple-minded handyman Petro (Glenn Strange). Before long he has perfected an injection to make Petro into a sort of wolfman that skulks into the countryside and kills innocent people.

When Petro returns from his sojourns, he reverts to his human state and reports to Dr. Cameron that he has had strange nightmares of stalking and killing innocent people.  As the death toll mounts, the simple country folk start sending hunting parties out to find the monster that is causing the trouble.  Meanwhile, Tom Gregory infiltrates the group in hopes of getting a good story.

Dr. Cameron decides to inject Petro with the formula in order to convince his former colleagues that his theories were right after all, and then murder them by unleashing the beast they were never able to believe he could create. But Dr. Cameron discovers that the monster is gradually slipping out of  his control....

  Comments: The success enjoyed by Universal during its golden age of horror wasn't lost on other studios, so it's a bit surprising that Uni's near-monopoly on the genre wasn't seriously challenged by its rivals.  Columbia made some half-hearted attempts to get in on the act late in the 30s, its most successful result being Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire, released as the curtain was ringing down on the salad days of the horror genre.  Tonight we get another film that tries to capture the look and feel of a Universal picture, but it isn't nearly as successful.

The Mad Monster sports a title that evokes a couple of bottom-drawer Universal programmers (Man Made Monster and The Mad Ghoul) which is only appropriate -- being that this is a PRC production, bottom-drawer is about all we can expect.  The lackluster script includes a mad scientist who has been ostracized by his peers at the university. Apparently his ideas about turning people into werewolves hasn't gone over so well with the other members of the faculty. Go figure!

The scientist (who like any good mad scientist has decamped with his beautiful daughter to an old house in the country with a makeshift lab tucked away in a secret room) has some serious revenge issues, and the only thing that keeps him going is the satisfaction he'll get from proving to his former colleagues that his theories of turning people into werewolves isn't crazy after all.  Once he proves it, of course, he'll have his lab-created werewolf tear the scoffing scientists limb from limb.  Schadenfreude is easy to understand, but a fella can go overboard. It never seems to occur to him that the police might take notice if all the scientists' enemies are conveniently killed by wild animals within days of one another.

The werewolf, once unleashed, has a habit of wandering off and killing random people, and now a posse of country folk are combing the woods for it. 

The simpleton is played by Glenn Strange, and we get an opportunity here to seem him sans makeup.  He is a hulking guy, and it's easy to see why he was picked to play Frankenstein's monster in that franchise's last outings.  But as the simpleton he unwisely decides to channel Lon Chaney's performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men, which gave me the uncomfortable feeling that the role had been written with Chaney in mind.  A Zucco-Chaney pairing would have been a good idea for PRC, though no doubt out of the little studio's budget; Chaney by this time was being groomed as a headlining horror star on his own, and wouldn't have been available.

The problem isn't with Glenn Strange, though, nor with George Zucco, who gives it his all (the man never disappoints); the greatest problem lies, as it does in most bad movies, in the script. Nothing is well thought out here.  Characters are stock, motivations are cliched, conflicts are unconvincing, pathos is manipulated; overall, we feel we've seen this movie a dozen times before, but done better, with better writing and acting.

Night of Terror

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).

Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment. 

 Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household. 

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household -- including the servants -- shares in the inheritance. What's more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?

Comments: Just a few nights ago -- Halloween night, as it happened -- my ten-year-old daughter and I settled in to watch a classic horror film.  We picked Todd Browning's Dracula (1931).  This was not the first Lugosi opus my daughter had seen (we'd already seen Return of the Vampire, and had watched The Devil Bat a few weeks earlier) and after the movie was over she told me that the two historical figures she'd most like to meet are Leonardo Da Vinci and Bela Lugosi.  I was really pleased that she said this -- not just because it was an indication that my peculiar taste in cinema is rubbing off on her, but also because I imagined the much-maligned Lugosi would have been heartened to hear such a remark.

Night of Terror really plays up the horror elements in its promotional materials but downplays them once the movie starts, going for an atmosphere of zany mystery: a lot of people enter and exit in quick succession, giving the impression that a lot is going on even when little is; the principle players are never in real danger and The Maniac, who is billed as a terrible threat to everyone's safety, seems far too goofy and random a killer to be frightening.   

This was an unfortunate movie for Lugosi because in spite of his top billing, the character he plays is pretty far removed from the action, and simply functions as a red herring (a role he played in many pictures, including the serial The Whispering Shadow, filmed the same year).

Lugosi's career peaked with Dracula, his first screen role, and it was pretty much downhill from there.  His disappointing career is often blamed on his limitations as an actor: his thick accent, his hammy delivery, and so on.  But oddly, whenever Lugosi headlined a movie, it seemed to make at least a modest profit; and it has always seemed to me that Lugosi's performance at the box office always met, and often exceeded, the expectations of the studios. In spite of that, studios were strangely wary of Lugosi, and he was often deemed as less than bankable no matter how much evidence accumulated to the contrary.

This film has Wallace Ford turning up as a newspaperman, the sort of character who serves as both protagonist and comic relief at the same time.  Newspaper reporters turned up a lot in horror films in this era (we have one in our first feature The Mad Monster), as they were able to antagonize both the country-club swells who were unable to perceive the threats against them, and the hidebound police detectives who couldn't see their noses in front of their faces. 

Sally Blane is just fine as the female lead in this picture. She didn't have many leading roles after this, but she acquits herself well here and is a believable love interest both for Arthur Rinehart and the brash newspaper reporte Tom Hartley.  That she can seem interested in Hartley, even though he's played by Wallace Ford, is a bravura performance by itself.