Thursday, December 16, 2010

Saturday, May 30, 1970: Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death.

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution.

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.

But moments before the execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: Drumroll, please: tonight we have the first Horror Incorporated feature that doesn't come from Universal Studios.

Before I Hang was part of the Son of Shock! package, which we discussed here; of the 74 movies included in Shock! and Son of Shock! 62 were from Universal. The remaining 12 were from Columbia.

Why Columbia? It's because TV distributor Screen Gems was owned by Columbia studios, which could toss in titles from its own vaults.

But it couldn't toss in many. Columbia had only dabbled in the horror genre, and it certainly hadn't developed the familiar faces and the durable franchises that Universal had. So these are relatively small and forgotten movies, somewhat on a par with the lesser-known Universal efforts of the time.

Before I Hang is certainly minor, but it does have its charms. It has an admirably goofy premise, equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Hands of Orlac.

The whole movie turns on the idea that the recipient of a blood transfusion might absorb the personal characteristics of the donor. Transfusions weren't new in 1940; in the 19th century it was found that a human-to-human transfusion would save one patient, but kill the next, and no one knew why. It wasn't until the advent of blood typing at the dawn of the 20th century that the procedure moved past the experimental stage. Vaccines against a host of diseases were perfected in the first decades of the 20th century, and such things as injections and inoculations and blood draws were becoming increasingly common.

Misperception and misinformation persisted, of course, as they always do in the wake of new discoveries. As late as the 1920s, Russian serologist Alexander Bogdanov believed that taking regular transfusions of whole blood was a potential fountain of youth. And it's easy to imagine why one would think such a thing. Blood has always represented life and vitality in the human mind, and the great new strides in medicine seemed to offer unlimited promise.

Which brings us to the rejuvenated Dr. Garth meeting with his elderly friends in his drawing room, offering them each the chance to be young again. Rather than jumping to their feet, rolling up their sleeves and shouting "Me first!", as one might expect, they each shrug and say, in effect, no thanks, I've lived a rich and full life, it's gone on long enough. This comes across as fairly improbable (I'm guessing that the screenwriter was very young), and the movie would have been better served if the men were greatly tempted to be young again but were held back by the nagging sense that somehow it was all too easy, that there was a catch they hadn't been able to figure out yet.

This, of course, is where horror films always diverge from science fiction films. In horror there is always a catch, and the cost of getting what you want inevitably proves to be ruinous.

But Before I Hang never pushes that sensibility very hard, and comes across a bit muddled as a result. Garth is depicted in the movie's first act as a kindly old scientist, guilty only of acceding to his dying patient's request for an end to his suffering, interested only in the good of humanity. He is no Faust, willing to trade away eternity for fleeting success. The movie works so hard to put us on Garth's side that we cannot hold him accountable for what happens next.

So we wind up with a fairly anemic villain, as Garth is repeatedly -- and predictably -- possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

And as Garth comes under suspicion almost immediately for his crimes, there's very little suspense to be had as the film totters on to its conclusion.

But as a showcase for Boris Karloff's talent, Before I Hang excels. It struck me once again how physical an actor Karloff was. His body language for the elderly Dr. Garth is spot on. A big, ungainly-looking man, Karloff isn't able to mimic the frailness of a septuagenerian, but his whole physical demeanor is brilliant -- the stoop-shouldered gait, the slowness in reaction time, the slight fogginess in his general demeanor. The old-age makeup in this film isn't bad, but Karloff has do most of the work himself (unlike Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, whose state-of-the-art age makeup didn't hide the fact that he walked and talked like, well, Tom Cruise).

And what a joy it is to see Karloff working with Edward Van Sloan again! The two are delightful to watch. Interestingly, Van Sloan looks younger than the characters he played a decade earlier in Frankenstein and Dracula, making me wonder if he took a bit of Dr. Garth's serum himself.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Interlude: Mant! (1962)

Gentle reader, I apologize for the delay in bringing the latest Horror Incorporated feature to you. I'll have a summary of our next feature up shortly.

In the meantime, please enjoy the trailer for Lawrence Woolsey's 1962 chiller Mant!

They sure don't make pictures like that anymore.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Saturday, May 23, 1970: The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

Synopsis: Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small town of Domingo. She's been hired as a nurse / companion to a reclusive blind woman, Zenovia Dollard. Moments after the bus has dropped Jean off in town she bumps into Hal Wentley, an old school friend who has long carried a torch for her. Jean seems uncomfortable seeing him again, and Hal is disappointed that she isn't in town to visit him. But when the expected car from the Dollard mansion doesn't arrive to pick her up, Jean accepts a ride out to the place from Hal.

Dollard's place is far out of town, a creepy house complete with a creepy mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton). It seems Miss Dollard has trouble keeping assistants on staff, which might seem surprising given the light duties involved, but might not when you consider there's a freakish-looking manservant skulking around in the shadows. Miss Dollard is troubled to hear that Jean knows someone in town, and expresses the hope that Jean will stay for a long while. She certainly doesn't want Jean to run off and get married, as her last assistant did.

Meanwhile, the local farmers are upset at a wave of cattle deaths that have been occurring throughout the area, deaths that have been left the local soil expert (Milburn Stone) baffled; the cattle deaths indicate that poison plants are growing in the area, yet there are no such plants to be found anywhere. One by one, the farmers conclude that they must sell out before they're ruined.

Back at the mansion, Jean settles into her new duties, which prove to be less than taxing. But she is alarmed by the baleful stares and the unwelcome attention from the grotesque Mario, and puzzled that she sleeps so soundly during the night, almost as if she were drugged.

What she does not suspect is that she is being drugged, every night; what's more, the sinister Miss Dollard is draining her blood each night in order to feed a brood of carnivorous plants in the basement, and that she is using the plants to make a deadly poison....

Comments: Remember Gale Sondergaard? She played the conniving Irene Herrick in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which we saw on April 11. The Minnesota native must have made an impression at Universal when she appeared in a 1944 Sherlock Holmes movie called The Spider Woman. Because the studio decided to use the same character again in a different setting.

Not exactly the same character, mind you; instead of Adrea Spedding of London, Sondergaard was now playing the allegedly blind Zenovia Dollard of Domingo, a wealthy small-town recluse with evil on her mind.

She's trading in poisonous orchids rather than poisonous arachnids this time, but never mind -- Sondergaard was quite good at projecting an outwardly friendly demeanor while suggesting something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.

And she projects just the right sort of menace for this creepy little mystery story, which cleverly uses Jean's vulnerability to ratchet up the suspense. Both Miss Dollard and Mario are interested in Jean for different reasons, neither of which can be described as wholesome.

And the small town of Domingo is shown to add to Jean's sense of isolation and paranoia: when she wants to quietly mail a letter to her predecessor, who left a forwarding address in New York, she is thwarted by the nosy denizens of small-town America, ca. 1946. The Domingo postmaster is suspicious even of her request for an air-mail stamp ("Air mail? Goodness! What's your hurry, miss?").

If I have any complaint about the character of Dollard, it's that she's a little too evil. Don't get me wrong, I love evil women*, but she seems to be trying too hard. Zenovia, honey, isn't it evil enough to drug your hired help so that you can drain her blood in order to breed carnivorous plants so that you can poison the local cattle population? Must you pretend to be blind as well? That's just showing off, darling.

But she is by far the most interesting character in the movie, even more intriguing than Rondo Hatton's glowering Mario. We must fill in a lot of the blanks in Mario's background, and this ambiguity serves the plot well. The movie suggests that he had an overweening interest in some of Miss Dollard's past caretakers; but beyond that we have little to go on. Hatton's performance here is somewhat better than that in House of Horrors; he makes the most of a non-speaking part, conveying a wide range of emotion with some very subtle body language.

Brenda Joyce is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies. About her performance in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, I can only say that she is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies.

Interestingly, there were originally twelve speaking roles in Spider Woman Strikes Back; five of them were cut out prior to release, and the film was trimmed down to less than an hour. I can't say the brief running time hobbles the narrative. The movie moves along at a good clip, and none of the scenes appear to be superfluous.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back was never released on home video, but there are businesses that will burn DVDs for you from old 16mm prints. The quality isn't stellar, but most of these movies can be had if you are persistent and willing to pay.

The truth is, there is very little you can't find online. One thing I'll say about the internet -- for better or worse, it's good at bringing obsessive people together.


*I even married one! Ha ha! Thank you, folks, thank you, I'll be here all week.

(Actually, at the rate I'm going, I'll be here until the spring of 2020.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday, May 16, 1970: She-Wolf Of London (1946)

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the "Allenby Curse".

Meanwhile, Phyllis' cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless. She reveals something that no one else seems to know -- that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby. Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything -- if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it's all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.

Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry. But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis' guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London....

Comments: Well, here I was, all revved up to write at length about the psychosexual implications of a young, repressed Victorian woman turning into a feral wolf as the date of her wedding approached. But no. This movie slapped my hand like a buttoned-up schoolmarm.

She-Wolf Of London is often cited as the last in Universal's cycle of werewolf movies from the 1940s. But that's misleading. It isn't a straightforward werewolf movie at all.

Rather, it's an apparent attempt to cash in on two popular movies that had come out a few years earlier: Gaslight (1943), starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon.

She-Wolf of London never captures the air of psychological menace that the former achieved, nor does it manage to build the self-contained world of dread found in the latter.

And it's too quickly churned out to offer director Jean Yarborough ( who directed House of Horrors, our feature from March 14) many opportunities for artiness or psychological complexity (although near the climax we're treated to a couple of arch camera angles, which stand out only because the balance of shots are so spare and unimaginative).

But what you ought to remember is a very young June Lockhart in the leading role. She was 20 when she starred in this picture, still more than a decade away from appearing as Timmy's mom in that curiously oedipal TV show Lassie.

Lockhart isn't particularly good here -- frankly, no one is -- but that seems more the result of a rushed shooting schedule than anything else. Lockhart makes a passing attempt at a British accent, while most of the other cast members don't even try. And she does have an open, expressive look that sets her apart from other leading ladies of the time.

Also of note is the set for the Allenby estate itself -- we've seen it several times on Horror Incorporated, most notably as the mansion in Night Monster (which we saw on February 17) and The Invisible Man's Revenge (from April 11)

In response to a reader request I am posting a movie trailer, which you will find above. I will try to include them when they're available, and I'll include links to the complete film if there's ever an option for me to do so.

Keep them cards and letters coming folks!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday, May 9, 1970: The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Synopsis: Professor of chemistry Alfred Morris (George Zucco) delivers a lecture about the ancient Mayans to a room full of university students. He describes how the Mayans employed a strange gas to make their enemies into zombie-like slaves. Morris further demonstrates that what archeologists had believed was ritual sacrifice was in fact a practical means of temporarily bringing the zombies back to normal.

After the lecture, Morris asks medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to assist him in a new line of research. Ted is surprised and elated by this honor.

Morris shows Ted the experiment he's working on: a monkey is exposed to the gas Dr. Morris had referenced in his lecture. As a result, Morris says, the monkey is somnambulant and prone to external suggestion. But when the heart from another monkey is removed and its "heart matter" used on the test subject, the result is a peppy monkey that is as good as new.

Ted congratulates Dr. Morris on this discovery, and tells him that he can't wait to tell his girlfriend Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) , a singer whose career is taking off. In fact, Ted and Isabel are planning to have dinner that very evening because Isabel is leaving the next day on a multi-city tour.

Morris suggests he bring Isabel over to his house for dinner -- that way, he says, they can all celebrate.

While Ted and Isabel are over that evening, Morris sends Ted out on an errand that takes him out of the room for a few minutes. While he is gone Morris tells Isabel that he knows she is unhappy; that she has outgrown Ted and is looking for a more sophisticated man -- a more experienced man -- "who knows the book of Life and can teach you to read it". Isabel admits that all this is true, but she is afraid of hurting Ted by breaking off the engagement. Morris tells her that he believes Ted will break off the engagement himself.

The next day, Morris arranges for Ted to be exposed to the Mayan gas. Ted becomes a blank-eyed zombie who must obey Dr. Morris' commands. The two go to a nearby cemetary, where they dig up the grave of a man buried earlier in the day. Morris forces Ted to remove the heart from the cadaver.

Ted wakes up in a bedroom in Morris' house. He is back to normal, remembering nothing of what has happened to him. But he's shocked to discover that two days have passed, and Isabel has already left on her tour.

He follows Isabel to her next city. Morris, feigning concern for Ted's health, goes with him, and urges him to break off the engagement for health reasons. Ted does so. But when he reverts to his zombie state, another grave must be robbed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Morris is stunned to learn that Isabel is in love with her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), and that the two are planning to marry.

When Ted reverts to his zombie state, Morris gives him a handgun and new instructions: to first kill Eric, and then kill himself....

Comments: For all that we've gained through the proliferation of VCRs and DVDs (and most recently, streaming-on-demand), there is one thing we've lost since the days of Horror Incorporated.

It's the element of surprise. The old creature features were immense cinematic grab-bags. You had no idea what you were in for on any given week. The horror genre has always tended towards modestly-budgeted films that provide a little thrill before fading from view and from memory. So there are plenty of small forgotten gems out there to see. The challenge is finding them.

The Mad Ghoul is one of those elusive movies. It never enjoyed a DVD release, which isn't surprising given its distinct lack of star power.

But what it has going for it are some good performances, a few clever ideas and a sly determination to undermine our expectations.

At the center of the narrative is something rare for a movie from the 1940s: a plausibly presented romance. In most Universal pictures from this era, we are made to endure the company of young lovers who are perfectly in tune with one another, lovers who are eternally, blissfully, mercilessly devoted to each other's happiness. By contrast The Mad Ghoul depicts a relationship that has survived long past its expiration date. Isabel has outgrown Ted, and the professional and social world she is preparing to enter will have no place for him.

But for all her newly-minted sophistication Isabel is still a coward. She is incapable of breaking it off with Ted even after she has become engaged to another man. Later, she asks Dr. Morris to deliver the news that she can't see him anymore. Her rationale is that Dr. Morris, as a worldly man of science, would know just the right words to say (honey, he's a chemist).

Ted, on the other hand, is so madly in love with Isabel it's easy to see why she's grown tired of him. He is like a puppy, so eager and so needy that he not only fails to recognize her needs, but seems entirely blinded to her as a person.

In spite of this, it is Dr. Morris, the catalyst for all the film's mayhem and destruction, who is the biggest fool for love. Played with great zest by George Zucco, Morris is driven not by meglomania or a thirst for destruction, but by his impossible love for Isabel and by his vanity.

It never occurs to Dr. Morris for one moment that Isabel might have no interest in him. He never stops to consider that there might be events beyond his control. Rarely are we presented with a Hollywood villain who is so lacking in self-awareness.

In his mind he is the world-renowned man of letters with an inside track to the Nobel Prize, a worldly and devilishly handsome sophisticate whom any woman would be grateful to be near. But he never sees himself for what he really is: a lonely, self-deluding egotist. He never asks himself what a beautiful and successful singer would want with an aging, pompous chemistry professor. And so he becomes an amoral reflection of Ted himself, blinded by lust, hobbled by his immense self-regard, and ultimately undone by his inability to predict what his victims might do to him, given the opportunity.

David Bruce benefited from being a young 4F actor in Hollywood during World War II, and he excels both as the lovesick Ted and the shambling Ghoul. Evelyn Ankers provides her usual bloodless performance, in her fifth Horror Incorporated appearance to date (we've seen her previously in Son of Dracula, Ghost of Frankenstein, The Frozen Ghost and The Invisible Man's Revenge, just in case you're keeping track). We get to see Turhan Bey play the dashing and sensible Eric Iverson; and in a sweet bit of comic-relief casting, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in 1933's King Kong) shows up as a snoopy reporter who gets a bit more than he bargained for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday, May 2, 1970: The Mad Doctor Of Market Street (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Ralph Benson is an unorthodox scientist experimenting with suspended animation. Because his experiments are dangerous, he must keep them secret, run out of the back room of his office on Market Street.

He meets with a financially desperate family man who is willing to be paid $600 to be Benson's latest guinea pig. Benson explains to the man that he will be placed into a death-like coma, which will quickly be reversed.

But when the man cannot be revived, and the police raid his office, Benson is forced to flee.

Soon he is on an ocean liner headed for New Zealand. But he isn't out of the woods yet: a detective is looking for him, and the passengers are advised that the Mad Doctor of Market Street himself is on board, presumably under an alias. Confronted by the detective in a passageway, Benson kills him and throws his body overboard. But there is a witness to this act, which turns out not to matter, because at this moment the ocean liner conveniently decides to catch fire and the order is given to abandon ship.

The lifeboat he shares with a half-dozen other passengers and crew ends up on an island in the south seas. They are captured by natives of the island, and told by chief Elan (Noble Johnson) that they will be slaves. But when Benson brings Elan's wife Tanaa back to life (with adrenaline and smelling salts, suggesting that she wasn't actually dead but, conveniently, in a death-like coma) he reveals himself to his fellow castaways as the mad doctor who the authorities were looking for, and the natives decide that he is a god with the power of life and death. As often happens in these sort of movies, they make him their king.

The natives offer Benson the most beautiful of the island women to choose from as his new wife. Instead, Benson gets the idea of making young Patricia Wentworth his "white bride", and using the other castaways as guinea pigs for his further experiments. This doesn't go down well with the other shipwreck survivors -- Patricia's new love interest Jim, her comedy-relief aunt Margaret (Una Merkel) and comedy-relief palooka Nat Pendleton -- and they devise a plan to discredit him among the natives and make it possible to escape.

Comments: Well, be careful what you wish for.

I've long been extolling the virtues of Lionel Atwill, lamenting that such a talented actor should be shunted aside in favor of lesser lights in the Universal Studios firmament. How criminally underutilized he is in these Universal horror films. When will Horror Incorporated viewers see more of this guy?

Truth is, we get plenty of Lionel Atwill in The Mad Doctor of Market Street, and I wish we didn't. This isn't Atwill's fault -- any actor pitted against this script will come out the loser.

Judging from its title, you might imagine The Mad Doctor of Market Street would be a Victorian thriller, taking place on the foggy streets of London, featuring stylized laboratories, dogged police detectives and secret passages, but the Market Street locale is abandoned five minutes into the picture. In its place we get a lazy cinematic caricature of the South Pacific, which screenwriter Al Martin has evoked with all the authenticity of a 14-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch and all the rich characterization found in a typical episode of Gilligan's Island.

Martin, in fact, is such an inept screenwriter that he apparently forgot to provide us with a protagonist; Benson is far too unsympathetic to serve as an antihero, and his fellow castaways are so bland that we have no interest in what happens to them whatsoever. And when the mad doctor gets his inevitable comeuppance, it's a letdown, because he was bested by such a gaggle of idiots.

In fact, The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal, I am tempted to think that Martin's script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn't seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin's colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously.

Alas, Atwill's long service to Universal studios was nearly over by this time. Atwill was well-known for throwing wild parties -- orgies, actually -- and after one particular gathering ended with a visit from the police, Lionel's film career turned sour. Bounced out of Universal in 1943, he wound up doing Poverty Row cheapies until his death in 1946.

As to Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton and the rest of the cast of this misbegotten production, all I can express is gratitude that they will not be pestering us on the Horror Incorporated screen in future weeks. None of them worked extensively in genre films, and none of them appeared in other films included in the original Shock! package.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturday, April 25, 1970: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey's cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey's fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb's last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin's visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family's coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother's work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners's dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug -- knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane....

Comments: The first -- and best -- of the Invisible Man sequels, The Invisible Man Returns uses the primary side effect of Jack Griffin's formula as an effective plot device.

That side effect, you'll remember from the first film, is a slow descent into madness. From Radcliffe's earliest scenes, where he is driven to distraction by a barking dog, we are forced to wonder if he is already suffering from drug-induced dementia or simply reacting to the stress of his dangerous plight. The creeping effects of the drug also complicate Radcliffe's goal of clearing his name, supplanting it with a darker impulse for revenge and destruction.

On top of this, Frank's effort to find an antidote for the formula before Radcliffe loses his mind completely adds a real sense of urgency. So what we end up with here is a good deal of dramatic tension throughout, with a minimum of the invisible monkeyshines and tomfoolery that wound up in the later entries of this franchise.

The movie benefits from an unusually strong cast for a B-picture. Playing the role of Radcliffe is a young Vincent Price, who clearly has not yet found his own signature style as an actor. He does well enough in this less-than-demanding part, but he is still aping the style of other leading men of the time.

Of course, as an invisible man most of his performance is in his voice, and while Price excels at conveying disembodied mirth and grim humor, he is less effective in the scenes that require him to show the growing paranoia and hostility caused by the invisibility drug.

We saw Nan Gray on Horror Incorporated back on April 4, as Lili in Dracula's Daughter. Gray was effective in her brief but kinky-for-1936 hypnotic seduction scene. We get to see a more sustained effort from her here, and she is quite impressive, enough so to make me sorry that she didn't have more of a career. Unlike many actresses of the time (I'm looking at you, Gloria Stuart!) you can see something going on behind her eyes at every moment -- stylistically different from the stage actresses who made the jump to film, Gray is delivering a subtle, nuanced performance.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke is a reassuring presence as Richard Cobb, adding some gravitas -- and an authentic British accent -- to scenes that really need it. Alan Napier, who played the snooty art critic in House of Horrors, is splendid as the puffed-up mine employee Willy Spears.

Cecil Kellaway is simply delightful as Inspector Sampson; for once we get a policeman in one of these films who isn't a complete dunderhead. Finally, John Sutton is perfectly acceptable as Frank Griffin. Interestingly, Sutton wasn't trained as an actor, but stumbled into it while he was consulting for Hollywood productions that were set in the British Empire. He was promoted early on as an Errol Flynn lookalike, but spent most of his career playing villains and kooks.

The world, of course, is full of villains and kooks, and so are Hollywood scripts. As you might imagine, Sutton had a good long career.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday, April 18, 1970: Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Synopsis: Artist David Stuart (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is working on the painting that he believes will be his masterpiece, the one that will establish him as a serious player in the art world. It's a portrait of an exotic model named Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta) dressed in what what we must accept, for the purposes of this film, as traditional Latin American garb.

Men are constantly putting the moves on the sultry Tanya, but she isn't buying. It seems that Tanya spends a lot of time in Stuart's loft, posing for his masterpiece, and she has fallen in love with him.

Stuart himself doesn't seem aware of this. He only has eyes for his hatchet-faced fiance Heather Hayden (Jean Parker). Heather's a swell gal, and she wears a lot of interesting hats. As if that weren't enough, her family loves him, particularly Heather's father, whom Stuart has taken to calling "Dad Hayden".

Whenever he takes a break from his painting, Stuart likes to soothe his eyes with gauze pads soaked in a boric acid solution, which he inexplicably keeps in a bottle on a high shelf right next to a nearly identical bottle containing highly corrosive acid. Because Tanya has moved the bottles around on the shelf while looking for something else, Stuart doesn't realize that on this occasion he's just soaked his gauze pads not with boric acid but with, well, acid.* As a result, his corneas are burned and he is now blind. The doctor tells him that a cornea transplant might succeed in restoring his sight, but then again it might not; in any event, donors are scarce and they are unlikely to ever find one.

His career in ruins, unable to complete his masterpiece, Stuart is morose and self-pitying, but he still refuses to blame poor Tanya, who feels terrible about it. Believing that Heather continues to stay with him out of pity for a blind man, Stuart nobly breaks off the engagement. When Heather presses him for a reason, he lies to her, insisting that he's in love with Tanya.

Dad Hayden refuses to give up on Stuart, and tells him that he has willed his own corneas to Stuart upon his death.

But when Heather arrives home a few nights later she finds Dad Hayden lying dead on the floor. Standing over the body is Dave Stuart, with blood on his hands....

Comments: This is the fourth of the Inner Sanctum mysteries that we've seen on Horror Incorporated, and by now the formula for these movies should be quite clear. Once again we're asked to believe that Lon Chaney, Jr. is a babe magnet; once again he is accused to committing a brutal murder; and once again the question of his guilt or innocence is the pivot upon which the story turns.

Inner Sanctum mysteries tend to pile on the plot contrivances, and Dead Man's Eyes is no exception. Arranging the circumstances of Stuart's blindness in such a way as to make us wonder about Tanya's complicity has forced screenwriter Dwight V. Babcock to reach, with trembling hands, for the very highest bottle on the storytelling shelves. But no matter how you slice it, any guy who keeps his eyewash and his corrosive acid in matching bottles right next to each other is just asking for trouble.

The script is full of clumsily rendered coincidences and red herrings, all designed to keep the viewer off balance. In spite of this, it isn't difficult to figure out who the real murderer is and, more importantly, who the real murderers aren't.

Lon Chaney, Jr. deserves credit for the thankless task of carrying another Inner Sanctum trifle. But the truth is that in most of these films Chaney is simply too old for the character he's playing. Part of this is Chaney's appearance -- he simply looked a good deal older than his 38 years -- but it's also clear that David Stuart, as written, is supposed to be much younger than 38 (though no movie's casting could be crueler than that of Earthquake (1974) in which we're asked to believe that 50-year-old Charlton Heston is an up-and-coming architect married to the boss's daughter, played by 51-year-old Ava Gardner).

Aside from the usual faces from the Universal acting bullpen, we must also pause to consider the presence of Venezuelan model Acquanetta, playing the role of Tanya. I will go easy on her performance in Dead Man's Eyes, because to pillory the poor woman, even 60+ years later, seems like kicking a puppy. After all, it isn't Acquanetta's fault that some deranged producer got it into his head that she could be a star; nor is it her fault that, frankly, she has no talent.

Yep, she's bad all right -- not low-budget-Universal-contract-player bad, but really bad. High school theater bad. Ed Wood Productions bad. She reads her lines as if reciting from a book of traffic ordinances. The woman is a knockout, but she doesn't radiate any presence at all, certainly not the hungry sensuality that everyone in the movie ascribes to her. To paraphrase the immortal Libby Gelman-Waxner, Acquanetta could not convincingly scream for water if her hair was on fire.

But she carries on gamely, as everyone in the movie does; and in its way Dead Man's Eyes is likable enough: not ambitious or flashy, but it kills 65 minutes, and if you've had a few drinks you might even enjoy it.

But then, you could say that about a lot of things.


*Acetic acid, to be precise. A 5% solution of acetic acid is better known as table vinegar, and mixed with a little olive oil it makes a delicious salad dressing. But in its undiluted form it's highly corrosive, quite capable of burning your eyes out of your head if you treat it carelessly -- as Dave Stuart clearly does.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Saturday, April 4, 1970: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Synopsis: Two bumbling policemen discover a pair of murder victims at Carfax Abbey. One is Count Dracula's old minion Renfield. The other is Dracula himself, lying in a wooden box with a stake driven through his heart. The only other person around is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who freely admits to killing the Count. The police, thinking he is mad, arrest him.

Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), the head of Scotland Yard, tells Von Helsing that he'll need a brilliant defense attorney to get him out of this mess. But Von Helsing is only interested in contacting psychologist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), whom he feels is the only person who will truly believe his story.

Meanwhile, the body of Dracula is locked in a back room at the police station. A mysterious woman appears, hypnotizing the cop on duty and spiriting the body away.

This strange woman is, as the title suggests, Dracula's daughter (Gloria Holden). Aided by her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she burns her father's body and carries out a strange ritual.

With her father dead, she has purged herself of the vampire's curse, and can now go on living as a normal woman.

Or so she believes. Just as Sandor predicts, she still dreads the light of the sun and still craves the blood of fresh victims each night.

The first victim is a young man out on the town. His murder baffles the police, and Von Helsing as well, since he is convinced that Dracula is the only one who could have perpetrated such a crime.

Insinuating herself into London society as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's daughter meets Jeffrey Garth, who claims to be able to cure people of deep-seated obsessions. She wishes to meet him alone to discuss her own peculiar problem. The two are clearly drawn to each other, and Garth agrees to her request, much to the consternation of his secretary / love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill).

But in the meantime her longing for blood becomes too strong, and she brings home a young woman named Lili (Nan Grey) with an offer of a modeling job. Soon Lili's body is found on the street, drained of blood and near death.

Because Lili appears to be in some sort of trance, Jeffrey Garth is brought in to consult. Garth manages to break the hypnotic block and finds out where the woman had been attacked. He's astonished to discover that it was a studio over a bookshop in Chelsea -- which is exactly where Countess Zaleska lives....

Comments: I've always loved the deliciously spooky films of Val Lewton, who directed the ultra-stylish Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The atmospheric Dracula's Daughter, while not up to the level of a Lewton film, builds a similarly brooding mise-en-scene, a self-contained world of fog and shadows. So it's a bit surprising to learn that this film was directed by Lambert Hillyer, who spent his career grinding out undistinguished westerns and serials.

Dracula's Daughter is remembered today -- when it's remembered at all -- for its alleged lesbian subtext, particularly a scene in which Countess Zaleska hires a young woman to model for her, plies her with wine, asks her to undress, then hypnotizes her in preparation for a nice bite on the neck.

While film-studies types sometimes reach too far to claim gay or lesbian themes in movies, it's pretty blatant in Dracula's Daughter, surprisingly so for a film released in 1936. The scene in question clearly inspired a similar moment in The Hunger (1983) in which vampire Catherine Deneuve seduces Susan Sarandon over a glass of wine.

But in an apparent effort to throw the censors off the trail, screenwriter Garrett Fort dangles a hint of romantic attraction between Countess Zaleska and Jeffrey Garth, igniting the jealousy of Sandor, whom (we are told) had previously been promised eternal life by the Countess. This love triangle weakens the metaphor of vampirism-as-homosexuality, the dark secret that Countess Zaleska finds deeply shameful and seeks to be "cured" of.

Of course, the fact that the Countess wants to be cured at all chips away at her power as a character, because she turns to others for direction and comfort. Sandor and Garth are more active agents in the film than she is, and that's a great pity.

Liz Kingsley, in her masterful analysis of the film, suggests that Countess Zaleska might not be a vampire at all, but simply a delusional woman who has convinced others that she is one of the living dead. This seems a bit highbrow and psychological for the 1930s, but it's interesting that we don't see anything resembling supernatural powers in Countess Zaleska. She never turns into a bat or disappears in a puff of smoke. And if she was truly made a vampire by Count Dracula, why was she not freed from the curse when he was destroyed?

But no matter how you interpret the character, the choice of Gloria Holden for the title role was inspired. She has a strange, regal sort of beauty, and maintains a slightly unnatural bearing throughout -- you never see her blink, for example -- and the scenes where she hypnotizes her victims are particularly effective.

Irving Pichel is effective too as the unnerving Sandor. Pichel had a middling career in character parts, finding greater success later as a producer and director.

Otto Kruger actually got top billing in this movie, though he is not particularly notable as Garth. Nan Grey does a good job conveying vulnerability as the down-on-her-luck Lili, and it's good to see Edward Van Sloan reprise his role from Dracula (1931), though oddly enough he now has the name "Von Helsing". The screenwriter apparently forgot his name was Van Helsing in the previous film, and no one seemed to notice.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Saturday, March 28, 1970: House of Dracula (1945)

Synopsis: Patients from all over the world seek out the brilliant Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a physician with a keen mind and a big heart. He has a practice that he runs out of his castle in Vasaria, and those who have lost hope in conventional medicine can turn to him in their hour of need.

Late one night Edelmann is dozing in an easy chair when a man in top hat and tails shows up in his living room and wakes him. The stranger introduces himself as Baron Latos, but it's obvious right away that he's really Count Dracula (John Carradine). He wants Dr. Edelmann to help find a cure for his vampirism.

By cure, Dracula presumably isn't looking for the sunlight-and-wooden-stake cure. We're talking a medical cure, something that will make him mortal again.

Since Dracula's already dead, I would rate his chances for a full recovery as vanishingly slim, but Edelmann is made of sterner stuff and agrees to give it a try.

Meanwhile, an agitated man is trying to get in to see Dr. Edelmann. It's our old friend Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr). and after badgering the receptionist for a while, he rushes out of the clinic, jabbering about the full Moon that will soon rise.

In his laboratory, Edelmann is examining the Count's blood cells under a microscope, when he gets a phone call from Vasaria's chief of police (Lionel Atwill). A distraught man has demanded to be incarcerated. He's clearly a nutter, so would Edelmann come down and have a look at him?

Edelmann does so, and comes face to face with Lawrence Talbot, who claims he turns into a werewolf when the Moon is full.

At just about that moment, the full Moon comes into view and Talbot changes into a wolf man -- before his very eyes. He tells the Chief to keep the beast imprisoned until morning -- then he will examine Talbot.

When Dracula comes back Edelmann tells him that vampirism is caused by a blood parasite, and that a series of blood transfusions might do the trick. It turns out that Talbot's problem also has a scientific basis. Talbot turns into a werewolf, we are told, because he believes he will. This belief, combined with certain irregularities in Talbot's skull that put pressure on key points in the brain, trigger his lycanthropic proclivities.

The condition can be cured, Edelmann says, but it will take time. This is too much for the excitable Talbot, who races out of the castle and throws himself off a nearby cliff into the ocean.

Edelmann, believing Talbot may have been swept into a cave in the cliffside, lowers himself with a rope down the cliff face. He finds that Talbot -- now a wolf man -- has indeed found his way into a cave. Moreover, there's someone else there -- Frankenstein's monster, in suspended animation....

Comments: Bram Stoker brought vampire lore to the public imagination with his 1897 novel Dracula, but it was Tod Browning's 1931 film version that fixed it there permanently. The inevitable Dracula sequels wore out their welcome rather quickly, and by the mid 1940s the most obvious variations on the story had been played out.

Ostensibly a sequel to House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula is another monster rally, but one with a built-in twist: both vampirism and lycanthropy are suddenly revealed to be medical conditions, which can be cured with the proper application of scientific know-how.

Of course, what we've already learned about these creatures makes such explanations hard to swallow. A parasitic infection that allows its victims to turn into bats, hypnotize people from across the room and live for hundreds of years? That's some parasite! How about a defect in brain development that causes people to turn into snarling wolves? Really?

But it doesn't pay to think about it too much. House of Dracula is going there, and you might as well just shrug and follow along.

And once you do, it works fairly well, largely on the strength of Onslow Stevens' performance as Dr. Edelmann, a sort of Transylvanian Albert Schweitzer. Or Dr. House of Dracula, if you will.

Lon Chaney, Jr. runs around hysterically during his bit of the movie, wearing the mustache he apparently grew for the Inner Sanctum mysteries. He's even less inspired here than he was in the previous Wolf Man outings, and that's saying something.

Why did Universal opt to go back to John Carradine after his dismal performance as Dracula in House of Frankenstein? He certainly doesn't improve here, and he's dressed up like a magician at a kid's birthday party for most of the film. My dear Count -- top hat, tails and a cape for a visit to the doctor's office? Really? Even if it's after six pm (and for Dracula, it always is) this is a sartorial no-no.
Martha O'Driscoll does well as Milliza, who winds up in a nutty love triangle with Dracula and the Wolf Man. And Jane Adams is particularly compelling as Nina, devoted assistant to Dr. Edelmann, as well as the sexiest hunchback in the world. A hunchback has apparently become a requirement for these movies, so Nina's doing double duty here. I hope it added something to her paycheck.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saturday, March 21, 1970: The Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Synopsis: Robert Von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) is a wealthy man whose beautiful daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart) is just turning 21. Three would-be suitors have gathered at the Helldorf estate, partly to wish Irene a happy birthday, but mostly to elbow their romantic rivals out of the way.

Thomas Brandt (William Janney) is the youngest, and brashly asks Irene to marry him the moment the two are alone together. He says that he's not a decorated officer like Capt. Walter Brink (Paul Lukas), nor a worldly newspaperman like Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens). But gee whiz, he's quite sincere, and seems crushed when she takes his proposal less than seriously.

It is a dark, windy night, an ideal night for ghost stories, Frank jokes; and in that spirit Thomas brings up a legend associated with the Helldorf estate -- the mysterious Blue Room, which has been locked for 20 years because of a curse. Robert is reluctant to discuss it at first, but finally admits that the room has been closed for two decades after a series of mysterious deaths took place there.

Hoping to impress Irene, Thomas proposes that each of the men test their bravery by spending a night alone in the Blue Room. Thomas will go first; then Frank the next night, and then Walter.

So it is agreed; that very evening, Thomas retires to the Blue Room. But when Frank and Walter knock on his door in the morning, there is no answer. Breaking the lock on the door, they find the third-story window standing open. Thomas has disappeared.

Helldorf implores the others not to bring the police into the matter. They search the grounds and, finding no trace of Thomas, they decide that Frank will spend the night in the Blue Room. But this time, he will be prepared: he loads a revolver that he keeps with him.

Just after 1 am, Walter and Irene hear a gunshot from the Blue Room. Rushing inside, they find Frank dead of a gunshot wound. But when Walter examines the revolver Frank had been carrying, he finds that no bullets had been fired from it....

Comments: Like all of Universal's horror films of the early 1930s, The Secret of the Blue Room boasts impressive production values and a solid cast. Its screenplay (derived, apparently, from countless Victorian mysteries) sports a locked-room puzzle that you will probably figure out immediately, in spite of an enormous number of red herrings -- some completely nonsensical -- that are thrown into the mix.

Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable movie. It has the kind of agreeably spooky atmosphere you want to find on a late-night creature feature, and it'll hold your attention. As a bonus it takes place in a castle complete with suits of armor and secret passages, and I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff. I suspect I live in a house with a number of secret passages, though none that I have managed to discover yet.

After many weeks of complaining that Lionel Atwill is given short shrift, I'm happy to report that he gets a larger role here, as Robert Helldorf, a loving father who is hiding many secrets.

This is Gloria Stuart's second Horror Incorporated appearance, and I must confess that she is not growing on me. When you consider that the whole movie turns on the obsession that three men have for Irene, it's obvious why Stuart is woefully miscast. She comes across as a tremulous, simpering cipher -- which shouldn't surprise us, since that's exactly how she portrayed Flora in The Invisible Man.

The movie was also made in an era where Paul Lukas, not exactly a lantern-jawed action man, can credibly be cast as the lead. I found it somewhat refreshing that the leading man doesn't precisely look like one. Lukas was something of a valuable commodity in the early days of talkies: a veteran stage actor who also had appeared in silent films.

In spite of an improbable ending, The Secret of the Blue Room holds up pretty well, and it should come as no surprise that Universal remade it twice over the years -- first as The Missing Guest and later as Murder In the Blue Room.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Saturday, March 14, 1970: House of Horrors (1946)

Synopsis: A spectacularly unsuccessful sculptor named Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck) is dining on bread and cheese by candlelight. It's bread and cheese because he doesn't have anything else to eat; and it's by candlelight because the electricity in his loft has been shut off. But he is in good spirits because a wealthy patron of the arts is coming over soon to buy his latest creation for $1,000.

But when the patron arrives, he is accompanied by a supercilious art critic named F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) who insults the work and implores the buyer not to go through with it. The sale is ruined.

Despondent, De Lange walks down to the river bridge. He is about to throw himself in when he sees a half-drowned man surface near the riverbank. He goes down to help the large, ungainly fellow out of the water, and returns to the loft, where he nurses him back to health.

He sees this man as "the perfect Neanderthal" and is inspired to create a new sculpture of his primitive cranium. It turns out that the stranger is an escaped murderer called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), and his m.o. is to snap his victim's spines. The police believe he is dead, and at first it isn't clear to De Lange what sort of man he's taken into his home.

But it becomes clear soon enough: The Creeper murders a streetwalker in the neighborhood (because "she screamed", as the Creeper succinctly explains), and when De Lange angrily reads Harmon's snarky write-up of his foiled sale, The Creeper gets up and leaves.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits her colleague F. Holmes Harmon. She is upset that Harmon plans to write a savage review of her boyfriend Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) and his planned exhibit of commercial illustrations (pinups, which appear to be Morrow's speciality). Harmon finds pop art in general to be contemptible, and Morrow's work particularly vulgar; he is determined to ruin Morrow with another poison-pen letter to the art world.

Enter the Creeper. He kills Harmon and slips away. Because Harmon was working on a hit piece against Morrow when he died, police suspicion falls on him.

De Lange realizes that all he need do is express contempt for an art critic -- or anyone, really -- and hey presto, he reads that person's obituary in the next day's paper. Bringing the Creeper into his life has given him an incredible feeling of power, and if that weren't enough, his sculpture of the Creeper is going well -- in fact, we suspect it's the first decent piece of art he's ever created.

As the body count rises, Medford visits De Lange's loft. She says she is looking for a story for her Sunday column -- but is she? Why does she steal a sketch of the Creeper that De Lange has hidden? And what will happen to her when he --and the Creeper -- find out?

Comments: House of Horrors is a distinctly minor film, but in a bargain-basement way it toys with some interesting themes: the root causes of victimhood, the nature of power, and the price of outsourcing your dirty work to somebody else.

These two movies will probably never be mentioned in the same sentence again, but while watching House of Horrors I was reminded of the 1980 high school flick My Bodyguard, with Martin Kosleck standing in as the picked-on teen and Rondo Hatton the bully who becomes the instrument of his deliverance.

The character of De Lange, after all, is living in a perpetual state of adolescent victimhood: he is downtrodden, ignored, cut deeply and constantly by the taunts of the art critics who delight in humiliating him. He burns with a teenager's need to have his inner genius recognized. And like a teenager, his rage is as palpable as his frustration. "If I was big and strong," he says to the Creeper at one point, "I would tear them apart with my bare hands". He clenches his hands fitfully when he says these lines, imploring his powerful friend to act on his behalf.

And of course the Creeper does act, though he doesn't do anything that De Lange couldn't have done for himself. De Lange clearly lacks the strength to snap the spines of his adversaries, but murder by other means was always an option. It was the will to commit murder that De Lange lacked, the willingness to pay the moral price for an act of savagery.

Similarly, he blames Harmon and the other hostile critics for the grinding poverty he endures -- even though Morrow, held in equal contempt by Harmon, does quite well financially. In fact Harmon dismisses Morrow's success, on the grounds that "dollar signs don't equal talent".

We know De Lange doesn't have money; but looking around his studio, it isn't clear that he has much talent either. The sculpture he nearly sells, "Surcease From Toil", really is dreadful.

The bust of the Creeper, by contrast, is quite good; there is a classical grace as well as a brooding power behind it. It isn't exactly clear why the Creeper is willing to kill for De Lange. The sculptor has almost nothing to offer except, perhaps, his friendship. That the Creeper craves the friendship of another human being may seem unlikely. Nonetheless it is touching when the Creeper, surprised that De Lange isn't afraid of him, extends his hand: "You're my friend. Shake." This childlike quality is engaging, but we see too little of it in House of Horrors; mostly the Creeper skulks around and kills the people De Lange wants dead, as though he were a personification of the sculptor's id. That's an idea just arty enough to appeal to De Lange and I'm surprised he didn't suggest it himself.

Martin Kosleck appeared as nutty wax sculptor Rudi in The Frozen Ghost, which we saw on Horror Incorporated back on January 17th; and in spite of Robert Lowery's top billing, his Marcel De Lange is the closest thing we have to a protagonist. Kosleck doesn't disappoint in this film; as always his soft, accented voice works as a perfect counterpoint to his razor-sharp gaze, which can convey anger or madness -- or both.

Rondo Hatton doesn't get top billing either, but this movie was designed as a vehicle for him and his peculiar physiognomy. Hatton suffered from a glandular condition called acromegaly, the symptoms of which weren't apparent until he was well into adulthood. The condition gradually altered the shape of his head and distorted his body and facial features, giving him a coarse, brutal appearance.

Virginia Grey rattles off snappy dialogue throughout (when her boyfriend complains that she works too many odd hours, she replies, "You should get yourself a nice fireside type. She'll bore you to death, but you'll always know where to find her"). Her performance isn't particularly memorable, though she parades through the movie wearing a dizzying array of hats, which seem to grow more and more outrageous as the movie goes on.

The character of Harmon is played by none other than Alan Napier, a talented and versatile actor who inexplicably found his greatest fame playing Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, on the TV series Batman.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Saturday, March 7, 1970: Pillow of Death (1945)

Synopsis: The Kincaids are an old-money family, a tight-knit bunch, and the elderly Kincaid spinsters see themselves as the guardians of the family reputation. When niece Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) begins working a lot of late hours with married attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) they are scandalized, and demand that she quit her job.

Donna refuses. She doesn't care what they think; she is in love with Fletcher, and knows that he is unhappy in his marriage. In fact, when he drops her off at the Kincaid mansion that night he tells her that he is going to have a "showdown" with his wife Vivian, who has recently fallen under the influence of a psychic named Julian Julian.

But when Fletcher returns home he finds the place swarming with police. His wife has been murdered -- smothered with a pillow. A pillow of death!

Police detective McCracken carries out a leisurely investigation, and though there's a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing at Fletcher, there are other suspects too. What about that table-tipping fake Julian, who is worming his way into the confidence of the Kincaid sisters? Or Bruce Malone (Bernard Thomas), the weaselly peeping Tom who is nursing an infatuation with Donna? Or sour old Belle Kincaid, who was the last person known to have seen Vivian alive?

And as long as we're asking questions, what about the chain-rattling ghost heard in the attic? Or the secret passage in the house that even Donna doesn't know about? Or the voice Wayne keeps hearing -- the voice of his dead wife that keeps pleading with him to come back to the Fletcher crypt, from which her body has mysteriously disappeared?

Comments: Just as you can't judge a book by its cover, most of the time you can't judge a film by its title. But in this case, the name Pillow of Death actually does say a lot about this entry in the Inner Sanctum series: that is, it's a bit sloppy, a bit hurried, and a more than a bit silly.

For example, the film introduces some elements of a haunted house picture -- the inhabitants of the Kincaid mansion hear chains rattling and evil laughter from the attic, but no one is there. Squeaky doors open and close by themselves upstairs when no one is near them. But almost as soon as these plot elements are introduced they are explained away, indicating a movie that isn't sure where it's going.

We get further evidence of this when we reach the rather far-fetched conclusion, in which Wayne Fletcher turns out to be a schizophrenic serial killer. It had to turn out that way, of course, because the screenwriters had written themselves into a corner. Everyone else had already been outed as red herrings.

Nevertheless Pillow of Death is entertaining -- more so than the other Inner Sanctum mysteries we've seen -- and it's a bit more like a real horror movie than the others to boot.

Lon Chaney, Jr was 38 when he filmed this movie but thanks to his hard-drinking lifestyle he looked about ten years older than that, and as a result, Donna seems altogether too young for him (of course, we could say the same for all the leading ladies in the series). Nevertheless he really is effective as the beleagured Wayne Fletcher.

J. Edward Bromberg provides some light moments as Julian Julian. He gets most of the best lines and, oddly, speaks directly to the camera when he utters the final line of the film: "The word abracadabra is anathema to the true believer in the occult." It's a hard line to deliver with a straight face, and Bromberg, to his credit, doesn't really try.

Like all the Inner Sanctum movies, the supporting cast is quite sturdy and the movie has a polished look beyond what its meager budget would lead you to expect. This was, incidentally, the last of the Inner Sanctum films to be produced....though not the last we shall see on Horror Incorporated.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Saturday, February 28, 1970: Night Monster (1942)

Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the spooky swamps of a rural area, miles from the nearest town. It's gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it's really creepy. That's when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.

In fact the only one in the house who isn't a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn't been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn't buying it.

About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit -- King, Timmins and Phipps -- the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.

Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room -- apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.

Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the swamps nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn't prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston -- after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn't quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when he has no arms or legs?
Comments: If I told you that Night Monster was shot in eight days, would you expect to see a good movie?

I'm guessing not. But this little flick really exceeds expectations. Admittedly, it ain't Citizen Kane. But it is still a better movie than it has any right to be.

To me, Night Monster is a good example of how the old Hollywood film factory worked: a script was picked, contract actors were assigned, an existing set was dressed, a shooting schedule was posted, and it was running as the B-picture in theaters across America almost before the prints were dry.

I have a lot of admiration for the old studio system because it was a marvelously efficient way to make lots of movies while ensuring at least a basic level of quality. In spite of what you may have heard, it hasn't entirely disappeared; tune into the Disney Channel sometime, and you'll see a vertically-integrated entertainment outlet at work.

So this is a worthy product of that system: craftsmanlike, competent, but nothing flashy.

And best of all, Night Monster doesn't cheat the audience.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by that. Over the last few weeks, we've seen movies that are basically conventional mysteries or thrillers with a smidgen of horror-movie content. Or -- ahem --with less than a smidgen of horror-movie content. There's nothing more frustrating than being suckered into a movie expecting one thing and getting another. So this week it's refreshing to get a horror movie in which the horror elements are an essential part of the narrative.

But there is a bait-and-switch present in Night Monster, one that I haven't been able to figure out. The top billing for the movie go to Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Yet both actors are relegated to minor parts. Atwill plays the fatuous Dr. King, and Lugosi plays Rolf, the butler. Had I been casting the film, I'd probably give Atwill the Kurt Ingston role, while Lugosi, not a particularly versatile actor, would have been a good choice for the mystic, Agor Singh (though I have no complaint with the performances of Ralph Morgan or Nils Asther -- the latter delivers the obligatory there-are-some-things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know line with appropriate gravity).

I suppose it's a little late to send a letter complaining about the casting to director Ford Beebe, so I will conclude by praising the performance of Janet Shaw, who plays Milly. She has real presence when she's on screen and disappears all too soon.

But when she's there, you can't take your eyes off her. In one scene the Ingston chauffer is driving her to town. Suddenly he pulls off the road, turns off the car, and turns toward her with a wolfish gleam in his eye. Shaw delivers the best line in the movie: "What's this all about," she tosses off contemptuously, "as if I didn't know?"