Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interlude: What Hath Shock! Wrought?

While I'm waiting for our next movie to arrive in the mail (in VHS format, gentle readers; I'm not complaining, just want you to appreciate how difficult some of these titles are to secure) I thought we could take a glance around and see how the Shock! package changed the TV landscape. As you know, Horror Incorporated didn't feature a host. But what were stations in other cities broadcasting?

There were, in fact, some very interesting things going on. Nightmare was a show out of Wichita, Kansas that starred Tom Leahy as "The Host"; it was strictly tongue in cheek. The clip below seems to be the only extant footage of the show. It's apparently from 1959, though Nightmare ran for many years after that. I do like The Host's offbeat introduction here, which gets funnier the more closely you listen to him:

Baron Daemon in Syracuse, New York strikes me as hilarious, probably because his schtick is so reminiscent of Count Floyd's on Monster Chiller Horror Theater:

Ghoulardi was a unique presence in Cleveland television in the 1960s: the clip below is from 1963, and I invite you to watch all the way to the end -- the guy would be brilliant hosting any sort of show, but he's particularly cool doing this one:

Around the same time Horror Incorporated was running here, Pittsburgh's WIIC had a lively late-night show called Chiller Theater With Chilly Billy, which featured a number of celebrity cameos. Appearing on the show was something of a ritual for visiting luminaries, apparently. In this clip Pittsburgh native Barbara Feldon shows herself to be a good sport as she clowns with host Bill Cardille.

A generation of kids in New York were freaked out by this interesting stop-motion opening for WPIX's creature-feature, also called Chiller Theater.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark came into prominence in the mid-1980s when her L.A.-based show Elvira's Movie Macabre was syndicated nationwide. To be honest, I never cared for Elvira, partly because her jokes were dumb, but mostly because she didn't seem to have any knowledge of, or interest in, the movies she showed.

The decline of locally-produced creature features was inevitable, given the economics of TV production and distribution. But horror show hosts haven't gone away completely. Australian pay-TV channel Arena made a splash a few years ago with a host named Tabitha, who managed to get everything right -- she had a clear knowledge and affection for the movies she introduced; she could do funny while still being smart, and she could do sexy without being tasteless. To me her laid-back persona fits well with the late-late-show format, though I imagine that some might find her a bit dull:

These days, horror movie hosting has a distinctly DIY vibe to it, with independent producers finding an audience through self-syndication, web streaming, DVD releases, live appearances, internet radio and more. These are labors of love carried out by some very devoted people. Cinema Insomnia with Mr. Lobo is syndicated in some markets, (though it seems to mainly exist online) and can claim a small but loyal following. Penny Dreadful's Shilling Shockers is currently syndicated on a number of TV stations in New England. Episodes are also streamed online and available on DVD. Here's an opening from that show:

Pretty good stuff.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday, January 10, 1970: The Raven (1935)

Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin's rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.

Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin's talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin's growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.

Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.

The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers -- he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man's appearance, all right -- by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman's face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.

Vollin arranges for Jean's family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture -- nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside -- and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe...

Comments: What, you two troublemakers again? Prior to signing on to the Horror Incorporated Project, I didn't know that Karloff and Lugosi had appeared in so many films together. But here they are again. Really, they were kind of the Martin and Lewis of 30s horror movies.

The Raven, in fact, is a direct follow-up (though not a sequel) to The Black Cat, Universal's top money-maker for 1934.

Like the earlier Poe-inspired outing, this one boasts an extremely tenuous literary connection, a snazzy house with some nasty secrets in the cellar, a pair of young lovers, and a beautiful woman in danger. But Karloff and Lugosi trade places; this time Karloff is the decent but broken man tormented by his past, while Lugosi is the pipe organ-playing nutter.

Even by the standards of Universal horror films, Lugosi portrays an extremely gloomy fellow here (let's face it: anyone who plays a pipe organ in his living room when he's not tinkering with the torture chamber in his basement cannot be described as happy-go-lucky), and his Dr. Vollin is essentially the mad scientist character he would play again and again throughout his career.

Boris Karloff manages to make Bateman sympathetic largely through body language (he was really very good at these sort of roles) and Irene Ware was delightful as Jean. Ware's good-natured flirtiness might have looked easy enough, but remember that she had to convince the audience in a few brief scenes that she could be ground zero of a man's obsession (if you want to see a movie that doesn't pull this off, see Invisible Ray, The).

The Raven is rather slow out of the gate, which perhaps contributes to its lackluster reputation, but if you hang in there until the third act you'll be rewarded with a fairly suspenseful finish. I'm not suggesting that the movie makes a lot of sense (why would Bateman, a fugitive desperate to change his appearance, enlist the aid of a prominent neurosurgeon?)

But it does capture a certain brooding atmosphere, and much of the punch of these old-style horror flicks was in the atmosphere they created. I don't recall a single scene taking place during the day, and in spite of The Raven's thin storyline -- or perhaps because of it -- I suspect it's the sort of movie that Edgar Allan Poe would have appreciated.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Saturday, January 3, 1970: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Synopsis: On a stormy night in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron are discussing Mary’s just-completed novel Frankenstein. Lord Byron marvels that the ladylike Mary could have penned such a ghoulish tale. He eagerly describes the plot of the story, and we see a recap of the original film. Lord Byron concludes by wondering what might have taken place after the monster was destroyed in the burning windmill.

Mary then tells the men that she has indeed devised a continuation of the story, and she begins to narrate a tale that begins where the 1931 movie ends.

As the flames of the windmill fire begin to die down, the pitchfork-bearing mob disperses. But the father of the young girl who drowned in the first film remains. He refuses to accept that the monster is dead until he sees its charred bones, and he begins to pick through the ruins to find them. The floor of the windmill gives out from under him and he falls into a flooded chamber below. The monster (Boris Karloff) appears nearby, evidently having been saved by the water in this subfloor, and the enraged creature drowns the man. The creature climbs up out of the ruins to find the man’s wife searching for her husband, and the monster kills her as well.

As the creature wanders the countryside, Henry (Colin Clive) recuperates at home. He is sorry for what he has done, but still gets that crazy gleam in his eye when he talks about the god-like power he had briefly harnessed. One night he is visited by Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a “professor of philosophy” who was fired from Henry’s university "for knowing too much”.
Pretorius wishes to form an alliance with Henry in order to create a new race of artificially-created humans. Henry has the power to restore dead tissue to life, but Pretorius claims to have mastered an entirely different trick – he can create new life out of inert material. To demonstrate this he takes Henry to his home, where – in a very odd scene – he unveils a series of tiny people he has grown in glass jars.

Meanwhile, the public learns that the monster still lives. It is captured and hauled into the village, but it soon escapes, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Later it happens upon the cottage of a blind hermit, who befriends the creature, teaching it to speak a little, and to appreciate the finer things in life – namely, smoking and drinking. But a couple of townsfolk come looking for the monster, and in the course of the monster’s escape the cottage is burned down.

Pretorius wants Henry to use his knowledge of reanimating cadavers in tandem with his own knowledge of building new tissue. His plan is to procure the body of a young woman and create for it a blank brain that Pretorius has constructed. With a female, the monster will be able to reproduce and start a new race. Henry is tempted by the possibilities, but racked with guilt and uncertainty.

The monster stumbles into a vast crypt just as it is being raided by Dr. Pretorius and his assistants. Pretorius is not afraid of the monster in the slightest, and offers it a drink and a cigar, which the monster greatly enjoys. He brings it back to Henry’s estate, knowing that if Pretorius cannot force Henry to bring the new woman to life , the monster can….

Comments: The Bride of Frankenstein was the second installment in Universal’s Frankenstein series, and seeing it just a week after House of Frankenstein is a bit of a shock. House is an unassuming trifle, a monster rally, with vampires and werewolves and mad scientists all competing for screen time. It is great fun, but not particularly memorable.

Bride couldn't be more different.

It is James Whale's masterpiece, easily eclipsing his original Frankenstein of a few years earlier.

This is one of those movies that goes from strength to strength: it boasts a taut, mordantly funny screenplay by William Hurlbut (and a platoon of other screenwriters, most of them uncredited) that wisely saves the appearance of the Bride until the final minutes; brilliant performances by Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester; brooding, expressionist cinematography by John J. Mescalla; and a flawless score by Franz Waxman. But the real star of the movie is James Whale himself, who in 75 minutes of screen time ties everything together to create a strange, gothic world, "a new world of gods and monsters", as Pretorius memorably says.

Ernest Thesiger brings a great deal to the role of the sly and enigmatic Pretorius. His eccentricities and contradictions more than make up for the dreary Henry Frankenstein, who is again played as a sweaty-palmed hysteric by Colin Clive.

Elsa Lanchester seems a bit uncertain in her portrayal of Mary Shelley, but excels in the film's final moments as the title character. Our old friend Dwight Frye appears as twitchy assistant Karl, and it's always great to see him.

There is little I can say about Boris Karloff that I haven't said in our prior Horror Incorporated outings. If you need evidence of his talent as an actor, compare his performance here with those of Bela Lugosi or Glenn Strange when they played the same role. It's not even close. Karloff is brilliant.

So is this movie -- easily the best of the franchise, and one of the best horror films ever made.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Saturday, December 27, 1969: The House Of Frankenstein (1944)

Synopsis: In Neustadt prison, mad scientist Dr. Niemann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel are unexpectedly freed when a wall of their cell collapses during a violent thunderstorm. The two happen upon Lampini's traveling horror show, which boasts as its main attraction the skeleton of Count Dracula. Neimann and Eric quickly murder Lampini and his driver and take their places. Niemann has been obsessed with proving the genius of Dr. Frankenstein and he sets out to the village where the Monster was created.

Niemann discovers that the skeleton of Dracula is authentic when he removes the stake that had been thrust through the vampire's heart. The skeleton promptly transforms into the Count. Threatening to replace the stake if Dracula doesn't do his bidding, Niemann sends the vampire out to kill the three men who had him imprisoned: Strauss, Ullman and Hussman. Dracula kills Hussman but dies before he can dispense with the hated Strauss and Ullman.

Reaching the village of Vasaria, they encounter a band of gypsies. Seeing a gypsy woman Ilonka being abused, Daniel saves her and, smitten with her, asks her to join them.

Later, examining the ruins of Frankenstein Castle, Neimann and Daniel discover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. Niemann realizes that the Monster can be revived, and he plans to place the Monster's brain in Lawrence Talbot's body; Talbot's brain in Strauss' body, and Ullman's brain in the Monster's body. But discovering that the Ilonka has fallen in love with Lawrence Talbot, Daniel wants his own brain placed into Talbot's body....

Comments: The House of Frankenstein is a movie about many things. It is an indictment of science without discipline, of ambition without morals, of the loss of identity in a scientific age, of the cruelty of unrequited love; and in Lawrence Talbot's case, the lure of the thanatos, the existential knowledge that dogs us all -- the knowledge that the only peace we will find in this world is in the grave....

Aw, who the hell am I kidding? It's a Frankenstein movie, okay? There's a wolf man! And a mad scientist! And a really lazy, ineffectual Dracula! If you're looking for more than that, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Really, if there is any moral to be found at the heart of House of Frankenstein, it is this: everyone should be happy with their own brain. Everybody is lusting after somebody else's brain in this movie, and it actually made me very sad.

House of Frankenstein is generally better-regarded than its predecessor Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but I'm not sure why; there are too many characters here and altogether too much going on. Dracula appears early on and is killed off too quickly and too glibly. In fact, Dracula dies before any of the other monsters are brought into the story.

For this reason the movie is often described as "episodic", but the plot actually holds together fairly well once the Dracula subplot is (rather unceremoniously) dispensed with.

Interestingly, having Frankenstein's monster -- essentially a science-fiction element -- occupy the screen with supernatural things like vampires and werewolves seemed more jarring in this movie than in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. This might be because Siodmak's script for the earlier film introduced the Wolf Man first, and from there led Dr. Mannering to Baroness Frankenstein and the perversion of science that her family created.

But this movie gives us the science first, and Dr. Niemann (a scientist, though admittedly an unconventional one) doesn't seem to be particularly surprised that the Dracula skeleton in Lampini's collection is imbued with supernatural powers, or that Lawrence Talbot is really a werewolf.

The cast is generally pretty good here, with Boris Karloff showing a sinister charm as Niemann. I particularly liked his conversation with Lampini in the trailer -- he imbues the character with an ironic sense of detachment, an interesting note added to a fairly straightforward mad-scientist role.

Lugosi was originally slated to reprise his Dracula role, but (in one of those little Hollywood ironies) he had committed to appear in a touring production of Arsenic and Old Lace, as Jonathan Brewster, the role originated by Boris Karloff.

This is too bad, because without Lugosi, the role goes to a surprisingly laconic John Carradine, who plays Dracula as if he were a two-bit riverboat gambler.

Lon Chaney, Jr. seems oddly distracted, as though wondering how many more of these movies he's going to have to do (answer: not many). Ann Gwynne, as the spunky, fast-talking American gal, seems to have breezed in from a Howard Hawks picture.

J. Carrol Naish has the most interesting performance, as the tormented hunchback Daniel. How hunchbacks became a desirable accessory for mad scientists is beyond me, but in the 13 years since the original Frankenstein they are apparently a requirement. Daniel gets the most poignant story and as a result, is rewarded with the most tragic death. The truth is, all the principal characters are killed in quick succession during the last two minutes of the film, apparently in a desperate attempt to tie up loose ends. House of Frankenstein doesn't work well, but the plot is so overloaded that, really, you're amazed it works at all.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saturday, December 20, 1969: The Invisible Ray

Synopsis: Renowned scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) demonstrates his newest discovery to a disbelieving group of savants, including Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi). In a somewhat surreal and complicated sequence, he reveals that all light and sound waves are preserved in space and time, and that looking back far enough he can see the moment millions of years ago in which a meteor containing an ultra-rare element called Radium X fell in southwestern Africa.

Radium X, as the name implies, is a souped-up form of radioactive material, possessing great potential for both healing and destruction.

Somewhat baffled but convinced by his demonstration, the scientists join Rukh on an expedition to recover the meteorite.

In Africa, Rukh works obsessively to unlock the secrets of Radium X. Meanwhile, Rukh's beautiful young wife (Frances Drake) begins to fall in love with another man on the expedition (Frank Lawton).

Most of the party returns to Europe. Dr. Benet quickly discovers that Radium X, applied properly, can cure any physical ailment, and he uses it to heal the sick, though he assiduously credits Dr. Rukh with the element's discovery.

When Rukh returns home he learns of his wife's infidelity and of his rivals building new careers on his work.

After receiving an accidental overdose of Radium X, Rukh discovers that his skin glows in the dark and that his touch can kill. The overdose also seems to have left him deranged, and he decides to murder all those whom he believes have betrayed him, starting with the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition....

Comments: The third of Universal's Karloff - Lugosi screen pairings, The Invisible Ray is a curious little misfire of a movie. It begins with an unlikely and convoluted science-fiction premise, becomes a jungle movie in the middle (lots of white men in pith helmets and "African natives" pounding on drums), then sprints through the third act with a revenge subplot reminiscent of James Whales' The Invisible Man.

None of these story elements fit together very well. The African expedition subplot, presumably added to make Radium X seem more exotic and unobtainable, doesn't add to the story and could been cut out; Rukh could just as easily (and much more credibly) have discovered it in his laboratory.

The movie still might have succeeded with a strong director and engaging cast, but that was not in the cards. Lambert Hillyard, who cut his teeth on B-westerns and serials, seems uncertain of his material here and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense.

And while Karloff and Lugosi do fine in their respective roles (as a mad scientist and a philanthropic doctor) Frances Drake and Frank Lawton are crashingly dull as the romantic leads -- so much so that you wonder how they ended up in a major studio release.

Add to this some special effects that would have been unimpressive even in 1936, and you're left with a standard-issue mad scientist flick from that era, almost aggressively generic and almost immediately forgettable. Still, it's always interesting seeing Karloff and Lugosi on-screen together, and Karloff's death scene alone is worth the price of admission.