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?"

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Saturday, February 21, 1970: Nightmare (1942)

Synopsis: An American named Daniel Shane is tramping it in wartime Britain. He breaks into a darkened house and helps himself to the contents of the pantry. He is startled by Leslie, the lady of the house, who doesn't seem alarmed by his presence -- in fact, she seems surprisingly eager for him to stay. She says she wants to hire him for a job. It turns out there's a murder victim in the study upstairs, a man with a knife in his back, and she wants Shane to dispose of it for her.

Needing the money -- as well as taking a shine to her --he gamely agrees, and makes the body disappear. But when he comes back to the house the next day he finds the murder victim is back where it was before.

Before he can get an explanation from Leslie, the police are at the door and the two decide to flee. Stealing a car at the back of the house, Leslie says that she has a cousin in Scotland named Abbington, who will help them.

Checking into an inn that night, the woman reveals that the murdered man was her ex-husband, who was involved in some sort of espionage work. He had shown up at her house drunk and in an agitated state of mind. But, she says, she had nothing to do with his murder.

The next day Shane drops her off at the Abbington manor, deciding to jettison the stolen car in Liverpool come nightfall. But he quickly discovers that the car has a shortwave transceiver on board, tuned to a German frequency. Realizing that there is a connection between the dead man and the car, he returns to the house, only to discover that Abbington is a German agent, who runs a Nazi spy ring with plans to bomb British supply convoys. But Abbington is also a highly-respected member of the local gentry, and the local authorities refuse to believe that he is working for the enemy.

Comments: Apart from the rather generic title, there really isn't any reason why this wartime espionage thriller got tossed into the Shock! package of horror films. But as it turns out, Nightmare is a pretty good little movie, with a story reminiscent of Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps, albeit with a somewhat more hard-bitten world view.

Shane isn't the typical Hitchcockian innocent who's in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of illicit activity to keep body and soul together (although, somewhat improbably, he tells Leslie that he's on his way back to the States to join the American war effort -- a bit of dialogue presumably tacked on to satisfy wartime censors).

The scheme hatched by the Nazi spies is pretty silly stuff (they're manufacturing exploding bottles of scotch, or something) but it hangs together just well enough to get us through the end of the movie. It doesn't hurt that Nightmare features snappy dialogue and engaging performances by Brian Donlevy (who later starred in the Hammer Studios' versions of The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II) and Diana Barrymore. Barrymore is particularly striking here, carrying herself with a confident, almost aristocratic bearing that is undercut at crucial points by Leslie's uncertainty about whom to trust.

This is one of the few films that Barrymore made. Universal had hoped to cash in on her famous name (she was the estranged daughter of John Barrymore). When she didn't pan out as a box-office draw they offered her a role in an Abbott and Costello film. She turned it down, and they cancelled her contract.

Nightmare is pretty much forgotten today, but I will now wave my magic wand once, twice, thrice -- and confer upon it the status of Minor Classic. It doesn't appear to be available on DVD, but if you get a chance to see it, it's worth a look.