Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday, February 14, 1970: Calling Dr. Death (1943)

Synopsis: Dr. Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a neurologist who uses hypnotism to cure clients of their deepest psychological traumas. In the opening scene, we see Dr. Steele cure a young woman who has been mute since a recent car crash. The girl's parents are amazed that Steele can identify the psychological root of the problem so quickly. Steele finds his work deeply satisfying; he is a wealthy and respected man, and clearly the top practitioner in his field.

Yet for all his success on the job, Steele is miserable at home. His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames) makes no attempt to hide the fact that she is cheating on him: he confronts her after she returns home at 3 am, only to have her laugh in his face. She tells him that she enjoys the money and prestige that comes with being a famous doctor's wife, and for this reason will never consent to a divorce.

Adding to Dr. Steele's unhappiness is the fact that he is in love with his devoted assistant, Stella (Patricia Morison). He has kept his passion for her a secret, but the next day, Steele can't help himself. He gives Stella the old "let's stop pretending" speech, and though she indicates that she feels the same way, the fact that he is married makes any relationship between them impossible.

Arriving home on Friday evening, Steele finds that his wife is gone, having told the servants that she will be away for the entire weekend.

For Steele, this is the last straw. He gets into his car and drives around, trying to find her. He awakens in his office on Monday morning, with no recollection of what transpired in the intervening time.

When Stella arrives she commiserates with him and he begins to feel better, but soon word reaches Dr. Steele that his wife has been brutally murdered.

His wife's lover, Robert Duval (David Bruce), is charged with the crime and eventually sentenced to die in the electric chair. But police detective Gregg (J. Carrol Naish) is convinced that Steele is the real culprit. And when Steele finds a button from his own suit coat at the murder scene, he realizes that the detective must be right....

Comments: Ever have one of those Friday afternoons where you hear some upsetting news, so you get in your car and drive around, and you hear your evil wife laughing at you and see a blurry montage of dark streets and stoplights shifting around on the road ahead, and you wake up on Monday morning at your office, with no recollection of how you got there or what happened during the last few days?

For me, that's just a typical weekend. But it's a first-time occurance for Lon Chaney, Jr. in Calling Doctor Death, the second Inner Sanctum Mystery to be screened on Horror Incorporated.

Chaney's Dr. Steele is very similar to Alex Gregor, the morose mentalist we met in The Frozen Ghost. And in many ways the movies themselves are quite similar: in both films he is involved with beautiful women much younger than himself. In both films everyone -- including the protagonist -- is convinced that he must have committed a brutal murder during a blackout.

And unfortunately, both films end up feeling padded with redundant scenes, in spite of their brief running times.

Thus we have Inspector Gregg wandering in repeatedly to remind Steele that his guilty conscience is going to betray him -- yes, it will -- any time now! The guy does everything but quote Dostoyevsky at him (Gregg even appears in Steele's home, presumably without a warrant, though of course this was 1943).

But the biggest flaw in Calling Doctor Death is the device of Dr. Steele's lost weekend -- it doesn't make a lot of sense, since he hadn't been drinking, didn't suffer any trauma, and had no history of such episodes. The screenwriters might have been better off revealing that Steele is suffering from a post-hypnotic suggestion to block the weekend's events, which would have been a clever way to lead us to the real culprit in the third act.

J. Carrol Naish seems to be enjoying himself here, channeling Edward G. Robinson as he chews the flavor out of every last line. Patricia Morison, alas, doesn't get much of a chance to prove her acting chops, though pretending to be in love with Lon Chaney, Jr. must have been a stretch. Chaney himself has a part specifically tailored to his narrow acting range, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, Calling Doctor Death is the kind of mystery that would have been right at home as an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents program. That show's 30-minute format would have tightened up the pace considerably. As it was, the Inner Sanctum Mysteries were really proto-television shows, their 65-minute running time the absolute minimum for theatrical release.

And like television programs, these mysteries were somewhat ephemeral. They were forgotten by the cast and crew almost as quickly as they were made, and presumably forgotten by the audience almost as quickly as they were seen. Just as you, gentle reader, will forget this post almost as quickly as you have read it.

No hypnotism required.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday, February 7, 1970: The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942)

EDITOR'S NOTE: When Horror Incorporated began in November 1969, it had a pretty consistent start time of Saturdays at midnight. But before long, that start time began slipping -- some weeks it would commence at 12:15, other weeks 12:45. It depended on when its lead-in show finished.

But now, and going forward for some weeks, Horror Incorporated will follow The David Frost Show, a 90-minute syndicated interview program, and won't start until 1:30 AM.

As you may have guessed, the double-feature format for Horror Incorporated still lies in the future. Many of the movies we are seeing now will eventually become staples of the Horror Incorporated second feature, including tonight's entry, The Strange Case of Dr. Rx.

Synopsis: A mysterious vigilante called Dr. Rx is killing mobsters and murderers who escape justice via the jury system. Due to the intervention of this sinister character, acquitted men end up strangled, with notes pinned to their chests signed "Dr. Rx". and bearing a number -- a running tally of his victims. The police have been unable to stop the killings, in spite of elaborate precautions.

Detective Jerry Church (Patric Knowles), just returned from South America, gets a lucrative offer from prominent defense attorney Dudley Crispin (Samuel S. Hinds), who is fearful that his own client will be Dr. Rx's next victim. Crispin's offer is "$5,000 to take the case and $5,000 to crack it." This, of course, was real money in 1942; nevertheless, Church turns it down.

But after he stumbles upon an intriguing clue, and receives a personal appeal from his old friend, police detective Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald), Church decides to take the case after all. Along the way he is reunited with Kit Logan (Anne Gwynne), an old flame, and the two impulsively get married.

Church starts receiving death threats, presumably from Dr. Rx, and after seeing how upset Kit is as a result, Crispin reluctantly advises Jerry to drop the case. Church, believing his responsibilities as a married man must take precedence, agrees. But local mobster Ernie Paul (John Gallaudet) wants Church to stay on, and after satisfying himself that Paul isn't Dr. Rx (as the police inexplicably suspect) Church agrees to this too.

Due to the careless driving of Shemp Howard (yes, Shemp Howard), Church gets kidnapped by Dr. Rx and taken to his secret lab, where he announces his plan to swap Church's brain with that of a gorilla.

Comments: Some of the movies we've seen on Horror Incorporated have been great, and others have been....well, less than great. But The Strange Case of Dr. Rx is our first out-and-out clunker. Its script is pure, inept hackwork.

Its best acting talents (Lionel Atwill and Anne Gwynne) are squandered in favor of stuffed-shirt Patric Knowles and his dismal sidekick Mantan Moreland (who is apparently on some horrible work-release program from the Charlie Chan pictures, which were dying a slow death over at Monogram studios at the time). Its attempts at humor are dreary, its horror elements tacked on at the last minute, and its rom-com subplot completely exhausted.

As romantic leads, Knowles and Gwynne have about as much screen chemistry as a couple of cinder blocks. The endless appeals to Jerry Church (Take the case! Drop the case! Take the case!) apparently serve no purpose other than padding out the movie's brief running time. The mad-scientist-in-his-laboratory bit is a welcome touch of the macabre, but comes too late to make any real difference and turns out to be what everything else in this picture is: a red herring.

Even when we cede that Dr. Rx's entire scheme is idiotic, his plan to swap Jerry's brain with the brain of a gorilla is absurd on its face -- it goes entirely against everything we've seen from him so far. Moreover, the only effect it would likely have on Church would be to make him a better detective.

The movie clocks in at a brisk 66 minutes, but it felt like three hours, and by the end of it I was wishing someone would swap my brain with a gorilla's, just so that I could say something interesting happened while I was watching The Strange Case of Dr. Rx.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Saturday, January 31, 1970: The Invisible Man (1933)

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.

He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart)and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan)are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley's underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white -- and drives them mad.

Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.
Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head -- revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene.

At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed. That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can't reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps's laboratory to work on a solution.

But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn't imagining how can "make the world grovel" at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause...

Comments: One of the truly amazing things about James Whale's The Invisible Man is how well it still works today. It's a nearly flawless adaptation of H.G. Wells' short novel of the same name. The movie benefits from a taut, suspenseful script by R.C. Sherriff, that wisely compresses Wells' novel in some places and expands upon it in others. The special effects, using what today would be regarded as primitive techniques, still hold up surprisingly well.

But special effects, of course, are just a means to an end. A number of movies have used more sophisticated tricks to portray invisibility (e.g., Paul Verhoeven's vile Hollow Man) but none have boasted anywhere near as finely -crafted a script nor as assured a directorial effort.

Great moments abound in The Invisible Man: Griffin's entrance at the Inn, where he is framed in three quick, successively tighter shots; his first unmasking in front of the terrified onlookers; the strange, almost dazed reaction to the news that Flora has arrived; and the remarkable moment when his footprints appear, one by one, in the snow near the police cordon.

And everything we see is capped, finally, by the decision to show us Griffin's face only in the final shot of the film. How much credit Sherriff or Whale deserves for this choice is debatable, since it follows the novel pretty closely here. But the result is brilliant -- it's the moment we have subconsciously been waiting for for the entire movie.

Claude Rains' performance in this picture made him a star, and deservedly so; but there aren't a lot of other standout performances in The Invisible Man. Gloria Stuart, who won an Oscar 60-odd years later as Old Rose in Titanic, is tall, willowy and ineffectual as Flora.

William Harrigan gives a rather irritating, one-note performance as Kemp. Cast against type, William Travers appears as Dr. Cranley. Travers generally played light-hearted, comedic roles (he's best known as Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life) but he does pretty well in a more serious part.

Whale rounds out his cast with some familiar faces: Una O'Connor (we last saw her in Bride of Frankenstein) gets another go as a shrill-voiced hysteric, and (drum roll, please) our old friend Dwight Frye making his fifth Horror Incorporated appearance as a newspaper reporter.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Saturday, January 24, 1970: Werewolf of London (1935)

Synopsis: On an expedition to the mountains of Tibet botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on the trail of a mysterious flower that blooms only in moonlight. Entering an impossibly remote region (which looks suspiciously like California's Bronson Canyon), he secures a specimen of the "moon flower" but is attacked by a strange creature -- seemingly part man and part wolf.

Back at the laboratory in his London estate, he tries to get the moon flower to blossom under an artificial moonlight projector he has constructed, to no avail.

Glendon's obsession with discovering the secrets of the flower has caused him to neglect everyone in his life, including his beautiful and devoted wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson).

Glendon is soon visited by a mysterious scientist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland). Yogami warns Glendon that the creature that attacked him in Tibet was a werewolf; because of this, he is doomed to become one himself. The only hope for staving off the affliction is the juice from the moon flower that Glendon is now keeping in his laboratory. But it quickly becomes clear that Yogami wants the specimens for his own purposes.

Glendon notices that when he places his hand underneath the moonlight projector, the hand grows hairy; when he applies a drop of juice from one of the blossoms on the hand, it returns to normal. But there are only one or two buds on the moon flower -- not enough to help him if things get, well, really hairy.

Meanwhile, Lisa has reconnected with an old flame, Paul Ames, who has recently returned from a long stay in America. Paul runs a flight school in California, a not-so-subtle counterpoint to the deeply-rooted life of a botanist.

While Paul's behavior toward Lisa is strictly above board, it is clear that there is a mutual attraction at work, and it is also quite obvious that Paul can offer a life that Wilfred can't: the carefree, adventurous and attentive Paul is shown to be a favorable alternative to the secretive, buttoned-down Wilfred.

But soon the full Moon rises, and Wilfred's plans to lock himself away for duration fail. Now the Werewolf of London is on the loose, and looking for blood....

Comments: Henry Hull stars as the hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent, in a production that predates George Waggner's better-known The Wolf Man by six years. Werewolf of London deserves praise on a number of points: it is Universal's first foray into werewolf lore; the moon flower that serves as an antidote to lycanthropy is an interesting device; but most importantly, it cleverly uses the werewolf concept as a metaphor for deeply repressed emotion.

Not only is Wilfred a stereotypical scientist -- more interested in his test tubes and experiments than anything else -- but he's also a stereotypical Brit, who finds strong emotions confusing and emotional displays distasteful. Thus Wilfred can only watch disapprovingly from afar as his wife is drawn into the orbit of another man.

So it makes sense, given Wilfred's state of mind, that when he becomes a werewolf he inexorably zeros in on Lisa, whom he subconsciously views as the source of his troubles.

This is far more interesting dramatic terrain than we find in The Wolf Man, in which we're asked to believe that Lawrence Talbot, a thoroughly nice guy who never had an unkind thought about anyone, goes on a rampage entirely against his will.

The Wolf Man winds up being the better movie, though, for a number of reasons. From beginning to end Werewolf Of London proceeds at what might charitably be called a leisurely pace, and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense. The moon flower, which is carefully set up to be a crucial plot element, is discarded by the third act. And in spite of its best efforts the movie veers dangerously close to comedy, because nearly all the victims belong to London high society. Werewolf of London becomes a movie primarily about social embarrassment.

Wilfred's greatest crime is not that he's turning into a wolf and killing people. It's that he is making such a deuced spectacle of himself among the teatime-and-lawn-tennis set. It just isn't done, old man!

Henry Hull is convincing as the starchy Wilfred, and does well enough in the werewolf scenes. But he isn't helped by the makeup effects, which made him look more like Eddie Munster than a wild animal. Valerie Hobson (who played Elizabeth in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) makes a very fetching Lisa -- beautiful, loyal to her husband, but also keenly intelligent and capable of making her own decisions when the chips are down. Hobson takes a thinly-written role and makes more of it than most actresses of the day would have done.

Warner Oland, on loan from Fox Studios, was at the height of his considerable fame when this movie premiered in the spring of 1935. He had been playing detective Charlie Chan in that profitable series of films for several years now, and would do so until his death in 1938. Typecast as a Mysterious Oriental (though he wasn't actually of Asian descent himself) Oland nonetheless turns in a solid performance here.

Lester Matthews, a bread-and-butter actor who worked steadily throughout the 1930s, is unquestionably the weak link as Paul Ames. Matthews is far too bland for the role. Paul should be a dashing Errol Flynn type, a fun-loving and adventurous soul who points up all of Wilfred's deficiencies as a husband and as a man. Instead, we have another repressed Brit politely eating cucumber sandwiches on the sidelines. This is a werewolf movie that could have used a lot more wolfish behavior.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Saturday, January 17, 1970: The Frozen Ghost (1945)

Synopsis: Alex Gregor (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is a successful stage hypnotist who's got it all: sold-out live performances, a national radio show and a knockout assistant named Maura (Evelyn Ankers), to whom he is engaged. Performing as "The Great Gregor", his act is to first put Maura in a trance, then have her read the minds of astonished audience members.

One night a loud-mouthed drunk heckles Gregor, who gamely invites the man up to the stage. Gregor offers to hypnotize the guy and have him answer questions from the audience, just as Maura did. But the drunk is uncooperative and as Gregor stares into his eyes he angrily wishes the man were dead. Instantly the drunk keels over -- stone dead!

Gregor is mortified and turns himself over to the police. But the coroner states that the man was a heavy drinker with a heart condition, and the death is ruled the result of natural causes.

This does not satisfy the morose mentalist, who spends the night walking the streets, muttering "Death....death!" over and over.

So distraught is Gregor that he breaks off his engagement with Maura. His manager George Keene (Milburn Stone), sensing his client needs a little R&R, urges Gregor to stay at a relaxing place in a remote area for a while, and Gregor accepts.

Inexplicably, everyone agrees that the most relaxing place in the world is a wax museum, and Gregor moves into Madame Monet's, which is a sort of mansion with living quarters upstairs and wax sculptures on the main floor. He gets to know the people living there: owner Valerie Monet is assisted by brilliant wax sculptor and freelance kookenheimer Rudi (Martin Kosleck), and Valerie's general dogsbody Nina (Elena Verdugo).

As the weeks go by Gregor begins to feel more himself again, but seems only dimly aware that young Nina has developed a crush on him. Finding out about this, Valerie Monet, who had been nursing a crush of her own, is furious. She and Gregor argue, and Monet suddenly collapses to the floor. Hours later, Gregor finds himself standing down by the waterfront, with no idea of how he got there. He learns that Monet has vanished, and that her scarf is in his coat pocket....

Comments: The Inner Sanctum Mysteries were a series of films produced as a tie-in with the popular Inner Sanctum anthology series on radio. The two series really had no connection beside the name. The films can be summed up pretty simply: they were mystery-thrillers with a dollop of the supernatural. A small dollop, mind you; the spooky stuff was meant to keep things interesting, not to get in the way of the main action.

For example, the question of whether Gregor the Great actually has psychic powers, or if he is just a fraud who has started to believe his own press releases, is left up in the air for most of the film's running time. Much more attention is paid to the fairly predictable wax museum subplot, and to the shenanigans and monkeyshines of its altogether ooky inhabitants.

Lon Chaney, Jr. starred in each of the relatively short films (they usually ran about 65 minutes) and a rotating cast of Universal contract players filled out the remaining parts. Like all of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, this one was clearly done quickly and on a budget, and feels less like a feature film than an episode from an anthology TV series.

Unfortunately, the pace of television dramas hadn't been invented yet, and The Frozen Ghost drags terribly, in spite of its brief running time. Nevertheless, the much-maligned Chaney carries things pretty well; say what you want about the guy, he could do gloomy and guilt-ridden pretty well.

Evelyn Ankers, who appeared in several of these films with Chaney, plays Maura, and the combination of Maura's forgettable character and Anker's forgettable performance made me feel like the guy from Mememto: the second she was off screen I forgot she ever existed.

Douglas Dumbrille appears as a Shakespeare-spouting detective. Martin Kosleck is amusing as the deranged wax figure designer Rudi, who fusses with the wax figures, talking to them constantly ("Ah, Cleopatra -- you are the queen of the Nile, we mustn't let your hair get mussed like that"). Kosleck was a native of Germany who made a career playing cold-blooded Nazis, which he seemed to greatly enjoy.

Tala Birell has a shortage of screen time, but is at least credible as the curator of a wax museum, while longtime character actor Arthur Hohl is rewarded for two decades of film work with the indelible credit "Drunk Contestant".