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.