Saturday, June 26, 2010

Interlude: Shock! And Son Of Shock!

You're probably still trying to regain your composure after witnessing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, so this is probably a good time for me to take a break -- and to explain why all the films we've seen so far are from Universal Studios.

A bit of background might be helpful for my younger readers (assuming, of course, that I have any). I tend to jabber on a bit when talking about this sort of stuff, so please bear with me.

When I was a kid there were only four commercial TV channels in the Twin Cities. Three of them were affiliates of the big networks (NBC, ABC and CBS), and one was an independent.

In those days stations tended to lard their non-primetime hours with reruns of old TV shows (Hazel, Mr. Ed, McHale's Navy, I Love Lucy, etc) and with old movies. It seemed like there was always a movie running on some channel, from midday through the wee hours of the morning.

But it wasn't always so. It took a while for movie studios to see television as anything but a threat, and relatively few studio titles were licensed for broadcast during TV's infancy.

One thing that really helped to change this was Shock!, a package of 52 films licensed from Universal by TV distributor Screen Gems in August of 1957.

Screen Gems's idea was to license TV packages for many different genres of film, with horror only being one. But Shock! was an immediate and somewhat unexpected success. The original package consisted of 52 titles from the Universal vaults. They were:

The Black Cat

Calling Dr. Death

The Cat Creeps

Chinatown Squad

Danger Woman

A Dangerous Game

Dead Man's Eyes

Destination Unknown


Dracula's Daughter

Enemy Agent


Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

The Frozen Ghost

The Great Impersonation

Horror Island

House of Horrors

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man Returns

The Invisible Ray

The Last Warning

The Mad Doctor of Market Street

The Mad Ghoul

Man Made Monster

The Man Who Cried Wolf

The Mummy

The Mummy's Ghost

The Mummy's Hand

The Mummy's Tomb

Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Marie Roget

Mystery of the White Room

Night Key


Night Monster

Pillow of Death

The Raven

Reported Missing!

Sealed Lips

The Secret of the Blue Room

Secret of the Chateau

She-Wolf of London

Son of Dracula

Son of Frankenstein

The Spider Woman Strikes Back

The Spy Ring

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx

Weird Woman

Werewolf of London

The Witness Vanishes

The Wolf Man

The late-night "creature feature" format was largely built upon these films. And because these were titles that had previously been available only during theatrical re-release -- if they were available at all -- an entire generation of kids were seeing them for the very first time.

That led to the fondly-remembered Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and to a generation of young filmmakers in the 1970s who had these movies burned into their brains at a young age.

A year after Shock! was introduced, Screen Gems unleashed Son of Shock!, which sported an additional 20 movies from the Universal archives.

Like many sequels, however, Son of Shock! seemed a bit flat and derivative. The films in the package tended to be pretty forgettable, with one exception: James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Saturday, December 13, 1969: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

Synopsis: Two grave-robbers enter the family crypt of the wealthy Talbot family, looking for an expensive watch and ring left on the body of young Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the titular Wolf Man. As the full Moon peeks through the windows, the thieves are puzzled to find Talbot's body covered with wolfsbane. They clear it off and begin searching for the ring. Suddenly, a hand reaches up from the coffin to grab one of the unfortunate thieves....

Later, a Cardiff policeman finds a man lying unconscious on the street in the dead of night, the apparent victim of an assault. At the hospital the next day, Dr. Mannering is shocked to discover that his patient -- on whom he had just operated hours earlier -- is now conscious and talking. The man says he is Lawrence Talbot and does not know how he came to be in Cardiff. Checking Talbot's story, the police discover that Lawrence died four years earlier.

That night, the full Moon rises over the hospital, and Lawrence changes into a werewolf. He takes to the streets of Cardiff, attacking a policeman. The next morning, Talbot declares that he committed a murder during the night and asks for the police. Thinking the man has lost his marbles, Dr. Mannering has him put in a straitjacket. He then goes with the local chief of police to the Talbot family crypt, trying to determine if the man in his hospital room is really Talbot; sure enough, they find the coffin empty.

When he returns to Cardiff he finds that Talbot has somehow shredded the straitjacket with his teeth and escaped.

After a long search Talbot finally catches up with the Gypsy camp of Maleva. Talbot knows that death is the only way he can be free of the curse, but Maleva tells him the only chance he has to die is to visit the guy who has harnessed the powers of life and death: the notorious Dr. Frankenstein.

The two travel by horse-drawn wagon to Vasaria, the hometown of Dr. Frankenstein.

Disappointed to find that Dr. Frankenstein is long dead, Talbot and Maleva decide to look around the ruins of the castle in hopes of finding Dr. Frankenstein's diary, which purportedly holds "the secrets of life and death".

Alas, a full Moon rises (again), Talbot turns into the Wolf Man (again), wreaks a good deal of havoc, falls through an opening near the castle and awakens (as Talbot again) in an icy underground chamber adjacent to the castle, where he finds Frankenstein's monster, frozen like a TV dinner....

Comments: Let me ask you a question: how many times a month do you think the full Moon rises?

Aw, you know the answer, right? Every school kid does. Just once. On rare occasions (once in a blue Moon, to be exact) it happens twice.

But full Moons come around just about every night in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. You might conclude that veteran screenwriter Curt Siodmak had a faulty memory, or perhaps a lousy grasp of astronomy, but what's the guy to do when, according to legend, your protagonist can only change into a wolf one night each lunar cycle?

You can't have him annoy everyone by jabbering ceaselessly about the horrible, murderous deed that he will commit three-and-a-half weeks from now.

The answer, of course, is to cheat a little. Lawrence Talbot turns into a wolf when the Moon is pretty full, so that he can squeeze in three or four nights of lycanthropic mayhem per month. So the werewolf becomes the victim of a kind of male menstrual cycle. And it's gonna take more than a bottle of Midol to get him through it.

This may seem like a simple tactical decision, a little concession to the demands of a Hollywood plot, but it's like a werewolf's first kill: the subsequent ones come much easier.

For instance, what has happened to the village of Frankenstein, whose namesake is universally despised? Now the locals are calling it Vasaria, and while anti-Frankenstein fever is still all the rage, the locals inexplicably invite Baroness Frankenstein to be guest of honor at the local New Wine Festival. Though they do regret their decision when, yep, the Monster shows up and smashes stuff. Proving once again that timing is everything.

Even Talbot's mysterious costume changes during his lycanthropic episodes push us out of the movie. Talbot is in Dr. Mannering's hospital when we first see him transform into a wolf; once he's changed into the beast he is suddenly in Talbot's dark shirt and trousers, rather than the hospital-issue pajamas. When he awakens the next morning he is back in his room, wearing the pajamas again.

Obviously, it would be silly to have a wolf man terrorizing the neighborhood in his pajamas (but think about it: wouldn't pajamas be the most logical attire for a werewolf?). But the inconsistencies add up.

I know what you're thinking: Come on, Uncle Mike, it's a movie about a guy who turns into a wolf and another guy who was made from sewn-together corpses. You can't demand realism from the screenplay.

Except....of course you can. In fact, the more absurd the premise, the more important it is that the internal logic holds up. Because the audience is being asked to buy something patently ridiculous, the small details surrounding it become more important, not less important.

But in spite of the plot holes and the lackluster production values, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is at least a passable entry in Universal's horror-film cycle of the early 40s. Lon Cheney, Jr. is at his best here as the beleaguered Lyle Talbot, and Ilona Massey projects a strong, aristocratic flair as Lady Frankenstein. She didn't have much of a career after this movie, and it's a shame -- she's very likable here. Lionel Atwill, a criminally underutilized presence in these films, is seen all too briefly as Vasaria's sensible mayor. Maria Ouspenskaya is, of course, wonderful as Maleva. And if you pay attention you'll notice Dwight Frye as an honest, hard-drinking native of Vasaria.

The most remarkable bit of casting is that of Bela Lugosi in his first and last outing as Frankenstein's monster. Lugosi had famously turned down the part when it was offered to him following the success of Dracula (1931) and it must have been humiliating for him to don the makeup after Karloff's departure.

Sad to say, Lugosi isn't up to the task. He stomps around and snarls and mugs, missing the subtlety and the pathos that Karloff had provided. Moreover, Lugosi was now 60, and seemed older than that; the shoot was extraordinarily grueling for him, and a stuntman had to be brought in to replace him for a number of scenes.

Adding insult to injury, from Lugosi's perspective, the original screenplay called for Lugosi's monster to speak. Test audiences didn't take this well; hearing the monster suddenly spout dialogue (especially with a thick Hungarian accent) caused titters at the early screenings, and all the monster's lines were cut. And nobody noticed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Saturday, December 6, 1969: The Black Cat (1934)

Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan's beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.

At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.

Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the futuristic house built on the ruins of the old fortress.

This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world's greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast's visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast's wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast's daughter as his own.

Wedegast treats Joan's injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night's sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Wedegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.

Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before -- more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.

Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.

Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his "childish" and "melodramatic" impulses. Realizing that this isn't yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.

Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin -- she is, in fact, Werdegast's long-lost daughter....

Comments: Well, here we are, five weeks into the Horror Incorporated Project, and we haven't yet made it off the Universal lot. Matter of fact, every film we've seen but one (last week's Son of Dracula) has featured either Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, or both.

But don't think we've fallen into a rut.

This week's movie, The Black Cat, has just about everything --young lovers on holiday, train travel, revenge, Satanic rituals, mute servants, incestuous relationships, torture, ailurophobia, chess and ultra-modernist architecture. And it's all packed into a 65-minite running time.

It was directed by Edward G. Ulmer, a Hungarian-born director who was kind of an Ed Wood in reverse -- Ulmer could take a Z-budget project and make it seem like an art film. Thus a throwaway cheapie like The Man From Planet X became an atmospheric little thriller and a minor classic of the genre. And working with a bigger budget and a couple of name actors, Ulmer manages to imbue The Black Cat with a genuine atmosphere of suspense and foreboding.

The loving attention paid to Poelzig's amazing art-deco house is remarkable; the house almost becomes a character itself, speaking volumes about the man's inwardly-directed ambition, his mania for creating order out of chaos.

In spite of the lavishly created set-pieces, in spite of its many moving parts, surprisingly little actually seems to happen in this movie. Seemingly significant plot points are left unresolved: Joan's strange reaction to the sedative is never revisited, and Werdegast's terror of cats has no bearing on later scenes. Karin's body has been perfectly preserved for some fifteen years, by a method that is never explained -- and while there are several other women similarly preserved, their presence is never alluded to.

Nor is it explained why Karin's daughter is also named Karin, if Poelzig married the woman who is ostensibly his daughter and if so, why no one in the nearby town seems to have noticed. So many of these inconsistencies crop up that when Poelzig is revealed as the leader of a Satanic cult, it increases our suspicion that the screenwriters literally made it up as they went along

This is an unusual film for many reasons, not the least of which is the casting of Bela Lugosi as a sympathetic character, and it made me wish that he'd found his way into more roles like this. I have always thought of Lugosi as a vain, unbearably hammy actor, but in his portrayal of Werdegast he projects a genuine warmth and charm. Had he not been typecast in mad scientist roles, he might have made a decent living playing congenial character parts.

But that was not to be. Unfortunately, the best days of Lugosi's career were already over. The long, agonizing slide to the bottom was yet to come.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

November 29, 1969: Son Of Dracula (1943)

Synopsis: At the Caldwell plantation in Louisiana, a huge celebration has been prepared for the arrival of a Hungarian nobleman named Count Alucard. He has been invited by Kay, one of Colonel Caldwell's two daughters.

Kay, we are told, has been interested in the occult for some time. Now she is acting strangely and her fiance, Frank, can't fathom why. When the mysterious Count arrives, weird things start to happen. Col. Caldwell dies under mysterious circumstances. The will he drafted shortly before his death leaves all of the money to sister Claire, and only the plantation to Kay -- but strangely, Kay seems perfectly satisfied with this arrangement.

That night, Kay and Alucard roust the justice of the peace out of bed and insist on being married immediately.

Frank, believing that Kay has fallen into the orbit of a con man, confronts Alucard with a revolver, but when he fires the bullets pass through the Count, killing Kay, who was standing behind him. Confused an distraught, Frank goes to see Dr. Brewster, who tells him he will look into the matter. But when Brewster visits Black Oaks he finds Kay very much alive, albeit a little spooky.

By the time he returns home he finds that Frank has turned himself in to the sheriff. Brewster insists that the whole thing is a mistake; he saw Kay late the previous evening, after Frank came to him with the story of the murder. But when the Sheriff searches the estate he finds Kay's body and, sure enough, it's thoroughly dead.

Now under suspicion as an accessory to murder, Brewster consults with Professor Lazlo, an expert on the occult. With Lazlo's help Brewster begins to realize that Count Alucard is in fact Count Dracula, who has left his depleted homelands of Transylvania for fresh hunting grounds in America. Meanwhile, in his jail cell, Frank is visited by Kay, who tells him she doesn't love Alucard, but has only been using him. Now that she is one of the undead, she can turn Frank into a vampire as well, and the two of them can destroy Alucard and begin their own immortal reign of terror....

Comments: Here's a tip for you kids. If you're ever an evil, undead Transylvanian nobleman who inexplicably decides to take up residence in a crumbling plantation on the Louisiana bayou, and you're looking for an alias to use in order to throw nosy would-be vampire hunters off your trail, DON'T simply spell your name backwards. It's not that clever an idea, and even worse, it won't work.

In fact, from the opening scene in Son of Dracula, people are constantly saying things like, "Hmm, that's funny....Alucard....when you read it backwards it says....nah, it couldn't be!"

But the real reason people aren't going to suspect this guy of being Dracula is that he's being played by Lon Cheney, Jr.

Far be it from me to criticize the great Lon Cheney Sr.'s son as an actor -- he was, after all, perfectly serviceable in The Wolf Man and its various sequels. And he was quite convincing as the brutal (and temporarily immortal) thug in otherwise forgettable The Indestructible Man. But placing Cheney the Younger in this role cruelly exposes his professional limitations.

Oh, they give him one of those pencil-thin David Niven mustaches, and a cape, and all sorts of courtly dialogue. But he still has about as much polish and sophistication as a gorilla wearing a leisure suit.

To make matters worse, the cast is swimming upstream against a sub-par script. The plot becomes so convoluted that I had a hard time even figuring out who was supposed to be the main character. It becomes clear early on that it isn't Alucard; so isn't it Kay? Wouldn't a more appropriate title be Bride of the Son of Dracula?

Wait, it looks like the plot is beginning to center around Frank. Maybe we should go with Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula.

But suddenly Dr. Brewster is taking center stage. That would make it Doctor to the Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula. Except Lazlo checks in as the wise and all-knowing Van Helsing character in the third act, so maybe we end up with Friend of the Doctor To the Fiance of the Bride of the Son of Dracula.

Well, you get the idea. Alucard first gets double-crossed by his wife and then destroyed by a punk with a grudge against him. In many ways he's the weakest character in the story, not much like a vampire at all. He's really more like a second-rate mob boss who can turn into a bat and disappear into a puff of smoke.