Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday, May 16, 1970: She-Wolf Of London (1946)

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the "Allenby Curse".

Meanwhile, Phyllis' cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless. She reveals something that no one else seems to know -- that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby. Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything -- if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it's all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.

Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry. But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis' guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London....

Comments: Well, here I was, all revved up to write at length about the psychosexual implications of a young, repressed Victorian woman turning into a feral wolf as the date of her wedding approached. But no. This movie slapped my hand like a buttoned-up schoolmarm.

She-Wolf Of London is often cited as the last in Universal's cycle of werewolf movies from the 1940s. But that's misleading. It isn't a straightforward werewolf movie at all.

Rather, it's an apparent attempt to cash in on two popular movies that had come out a few years earlier: Gaslight (1943), starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and Cat People (1942), starring Simone Simon.

She-Wolf of London never captures the air of psychological menace that the former achieved, nor does it manage to build the self-contained world of dread found in the latter.

And it's too quickly churned out to offer director Jean Yarborough ( who directed House of Horrors, our feature from March 14) many opportunities for artiness or psychological complexity (although near the climax we're treated to a couple of arch camera angles, which stand out only because the balance of shots are so spare and unimaginative).

But what you ought to remember is a very young June Lockhart in the leading role. She was 20 when she starred in this picture, still more than a decade away from appearing as Timmy's mom in that curiously oedipal TV show Lassie.

Lockhart isn't particularly good here -- frankly, no one is -- but that seems more the result of a rushed shooting schedule than anything else. Lockhart makes a passing attempt at a British accent, while most of the other cast members don't even try. And she does have an open, expressive look that sets her apart from other leading ladies of the time.

Also of note is the set for the Allenby estate itself -- we've seen it several times on Horror Incorporated, most notably as the mansion in Night Monster (which we saw on February 17) and The Invisible Man's Revenge (from April 11)

In response to a reader request I am posting a movie trailer, which you will find above. I will try to include them when they're available, and I'll include links to the complete film if there's ever an option for me to do so.

Keep them cards and letters coming folks!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Saturday, May 9, 1970: The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Synopsis: Professor of chemistry Alfred Morris (George Zucco) delivers a lecture about the ancient Mayans to a room full of university students. He describes how the Mayans employed a strange gas to make their enemies into zombie-like slaves. Morris further demonstrates that what archeologists had believed was ritual sacrifice was in fact a practical means of temporarily bringing the zombies back to normal.

After the lecture, Morris asks medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to assist him in a new line of research. Ted is surprised and elated by this honor.

Morris shows Ted the experiment he's working on: a monkey is exposed to the gas Dr. Morris had referenced in his lecture. As a result, Morris says, the monkey is somnambulant and prone to external suggestion. But when the heart from another monkey is removed and its "heart matter" used on the test subject, the result is a peppy monkey that is as good as new.

Ted congratulates Dr. Morris on this discovery, and tells him that he can't wait to tell his girlfriend Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) , a singer whose career is taking off. In fact, Ted and Isabel are planning to have dinner that very evening because Isabel is leaving the next day on a multi-city tour.

Morris suggests he bring Isabel over to his house for dinner -- that way, he says, they can all celebrate.

While Ted and Isabel are over that evening, Morris sends Ted out on an errand that takes him out of the room for a few minutes. While he is gone Morris tells Isabel that he knows she is unhappy; that she has outgrown Ted and is looking for a more sophisticated man -- a more experienced man -- "who knows the book of Life and can teach you to read it". Isabel admits that all this is true, but she is afraid of hurting Ted by breaking off the engagement. Morris tells her that he believes Ted will break off the engagement himself.

The next day, Morris arranges for Ted to be exposed to the Mayan gas. Ted becomes a blank-eyed zombie who must obey Dr. Morris' commands. The two go to a nearby cemetary, where they dig up the grave of a man buried earlier in the day. Morris forces Ted to remove the heart from the cadaver.

Ted wakes up in a bedroom in Morris' house. He is back to normal, remembering nothing of what has happened to him. But he's shocked to discover that two days have passed, and Isabel has already left on her tour.

He follows Isabel to her next city. Morris, feigning concern for Ted's health, goes with him, and urges him to break off the engagement for health reasons. Ted does so. But when he reverts to his zombie state, another grave must be robbed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Morris is stunned to learn that Isabel is in love with her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), and that the two are planning to marry.

When Ted reverts to his zombie state, Morris gives him a handgun and new instructions: to first kill Eric, and then kill himself....

Comments: For all that we've gained through the proliferation of VCRs and DVDs (and most recently, streaming-on-demand), there is one thing we've lost since the days of Horror Incorporated.

It's the element of surprise. The old creature features were immense cinematic grab-bags. You had no idea what you were in for on any given week. The horror genre has always tended towards modestly-budgeted films that provide a little thrill before fading from view and from memory. So there are plenty of small forgotten gems out there to see. The challenge is finding them.

The Mad Ghoul is one of those elusive movies. It never enjoyed a DVD release, which isn't surprising given its distinct lack of star power.

But what it has going for it are some good performances, a few clever ideas and a sly determination to undermine our expectations.

At the center of the narrative is something rare for a movie from the 1940s: a plausibly presented romance. In most Universal pictures from this era, we are made to endure the company of young lovers who are perfectly in tune with one another, lovers who are eternally, blissfully, mercilessly devoted to each other's happiness. By contrast The Mad Ghoul depicts a relationship that has survived long past its expiration date. Isabel has outgrown Ted, and the professional and social world she is preparing to enter will have no place for him.

But for all her newly-minted sophistication Isabel is still a coward. She is incapable of breaking it off with Ted even after she has become engaged to another man. Later, she asks Dr. Morris to deliver the news that she can't see him anymore. Her rationale is that Dr. Morris, as a worldly man of science, would know just the right words to say (honey, he's a chemist).

Ted, on the other hand, is so madly in love with Isabel it's easy to see why she's grown tired of him. He is like a puppy, so eager and so needy that he not only fails to recognize her needs, but seems entirely blinded to her as a person.

In spite of this, it is Dr. Morris, the catalyst for all the film's mayhem and destruction, who is the biggest fool for love. Played with great zest by George Zucco, Morris is driven not by meglomania or a thirst for destruction, but by his impossible love for Isabel and by his vanity.

It never occurs to Dr. Morris for one moment that Isabel might have no interest in him. He never stops to consider that there might be events beyond his control. Rarely are we presented with a Hollywood villain who is so lacking in self-awareness.

In his mind he is the world-renowned man of letters with an inside track to the Nobel Prize, a worldly and devilishly handsome sophisticate whom any woman would be grateful to be near. But he never sees himself for what he really is: a lonely, self-deluding egotist. He never asks himself what a beautiful and successful singer would want with an aging, pompous chemistry professor. And so he becomes an amoral reflection of Ted himself, blinded by lust, hobbled by his immense self-regard, and ultimately undone by his inability to predict what his victims might do to him, given the opportunity.

David Bruce benefited from being a young 4F actor in Hollywood during World War II, and he excels both as the lovesick Ted and the shambling Ghoul. Evelyn Ankers provides her usual bloodless performance, in her fifth Horror Incorporated appearance to date (we've seen her previously in Son of Dracula, Ghost of Frankenstein, The Frozen Ghost and The Invisible Man's Revenge, just in case you're keeping track). We get to see Turhan Bey play the dashing and sensible Eric Iverson; and in a sweet bit of comic-relief casting, Robert Armstrong (Carl Denham in 1933's King Kong) shows up as a snoopy reporter who gets a bit more than he bargained for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Saturday, May 2, 1970: The Mad Doctor Of Market Street (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Ralph Benson is an unorthodox scientist experimenting with suspended animation. Because his experiments are dangerous, he must keep them secret, run out of the back room of his office on Market Street.

He meets with a financially desperate family man who is willing to be paid $600 to be Benson's latest guinea pig. Benson explains to the man that he will be placed into a death-like coma, which will quickly be reversed.

But when the man cannot be revived, and the police raid his office, Benson is forced to flee.

Soon he is on an ocean liner headed for New Zealand. But he isn't out of the woods yet: a detective is looking for him, and the passengers are advised that the Mad Doctor of Market Street himself is on board, presumably under an alias. Confronted by the detective in a passageway, Benson kills him and throws his body overboard. But there is a witness to this act, which turns out not to matter, because at this moment the ocean liner conveniently decides to catch fire and the order is given to abandon ship.

The lifeboat he shares with a half-dozen other passengers and crew ends up on an island in the south seas. They are captured by natives of the island, and told by chief Elan (Noble Johnson) that they will be slaves. But when Benson brings Elan's wife Tanaa back to life (with adrenaline and smelling salts, suggesting that she wasn't actually dead but, conveniently, in a death-like coma) he reveals himself to his fellow castaways as the mad doctor who the authorities were looking for, and the natives decide that he is a god with the power of life and death. As often happens in these sort of movies, they make him their king.

The natives offer Benson the most beautiful of the island women to choose from as his new wife. Instead, Benson gets the idea of making young Patricia Wentworth his "white bride", and using the other castaways as guinea pigs for his further experiments. This doesn't go down well with the other shipwreck survivors -- Patricia's new love interest Jim, her comedy-relief aunt Margaret (Una Merkel) and comedy-relief palooka Nat Pendleton -- and they devise a plan to discredit him among the natives and make it possible to escape.

Comments: Well, be careful what you wish for.

I've long been extolling the virtues of Lionel Atwill, lamenting that such a talented actor should be shunted aside in favor of lesser lights in the Universal Studios firmament. How criminally underutilized he is in these Universal horror films. When will Horror Incorporated viewers see more of this guy?

Truth is, we get plenty of Lionel Atwill in The Mad Doctor of Market Street, and I wish we didn't. This isn't Atwill's fault -- any actor pitted against this script will come out the loser.

Judging from its title, you might imagine The Mad Doctor of Market Street would be a Victorian thriller, taking place on the foggy streets of London, featuring stylized laboratories, dogged police detectives and secret passages, but the Market Street locale is abandoned five minutes into the picture. In its place we get a lazy cinematic caricature of the South Pacific, which screenwriter Al Martin has evoked with all the authenticity of a 14-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch and all the rich characterization found in a typical episode of Gilligan's Island.

Martin, in fact, is such an inept screenwriter that he apparently forgot to provide us with a protagonist; Benson is far too unsympathetic to serve as an antihero, and his fellow castaways are so bland that we have no interest in what happens to them whatsoever. And when the mad doctor gets his inevitable comeuppance, it's a letdown, because he was bested by such a gaggle of idiots.

In fact, The Mad Doctor of Market Street presents us with such lousy specimens of the human animal, I am tempted to think that Martin's script was trying to sneak in an existentialist subtext. Certainly, life couldn't seem more absurd or meaningless than it does at the end of The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Only Martin's colossal incompetence at every other facet of screenwriting keep me from taking such an idea seriously.

Alas, Atwill's long service to Universal studios was nearly over by this time. Atwill was well-known for throwing wild parties -- orgies, actually -- and after one particular gathering ended with a visit from the police, Lionel's film career turned sour. Bounced out of Universal in 1943, he wound up doing Poverty Row cheapies until his death in 1946.

As to Una Merkel, Nat Pendleton and the rest of the cast of this misbegotten production, all I can express is gratitude that they will not be pestering us on the Horror Incorporated screen in future weeks. None of them worked extensively in genre films, and none of them appeared in other films included in the original Shock! package.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saturday, April 25, 1970: The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey's cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey's fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb's last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin's visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family's coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother's work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners's dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug -- knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane....

Comments: The first -- and best -- of the Invisible Man sequels, The Invisible Man Returns uses the primary side effect of Jack Griffin's formula as an effective plot device.

That side effect, you'll remember from the first film, is a slow descent into madness. From Radcliffe's earliest scenes, where he is driven to distraction by a barking dog, we are forced to wonder if he is already suffering from drug-induced dementia or simply reacting to the stress of his dangerous plight. The creeping effects of the drug also complicate Radcliffe's goal of clearing his name, supplanting it with a darker impulse for revenge and destruction.

On top of this, Frank's effort to find an antidote for the formula before Radcliffe loses his mind completely adds a real sense of urgency. So what we end up with here is a good deal of dramatic tension throughout, with a minimum of the invisible monkeyshines and tomfoolery that wound up in the later entries of this franchise.

The movie benefits from an unusually strong cast for a B-picture. Playing the role of Radcliffe is a young Vincent Price, who clearly has not yet found his own signature style as an actor. He does well enough in this less-than-demanding part, but he is still aping the style of other leading men of the time.

Of course, as an invisible man most of his performance is in his voice, and while Price excels at conveying disembodied mirth and grim humor, he is less effective in the scenes that require him to show the growing paranoia and hostility caused by the invisibility drug.

We saw Nan Gray on Horror Incorporated back on April 4, as Lili in Dracula's Daughter. Gray was effective in her brief but kinky-for-1936 hypnotic seduction scene. We get to see a more sustained effort from her here, and she is quite impressive, enough so to make me sorry that she didn't have more of a career. Unlike many actresses of the time (I'm looking at you, Gloria Stuart!) you can see something going on behind her eyes at every moment -- stylistically different from the stage actresses who made the jump to film, Gray is delivering a subtle, nuanced performance.

Sir Cedric Hardwicke is a reassuring presence as Richard Cobb, adding some gravitas -- and an authentic British accent -- to scenes that really need it. Alan Napier, who played the snooty art critic in House of Horrors, is splendid as the puffed-up mine employee Willy Spears.

Cecil Kellaway is simply delightful as Inspector Sampson; for once we get a policeman in one of these films who isn't a complete dunderhead. Finally, John Sutton is perfectly acceptable as Frank Griffin. Interestingly, Sutton wasn't trained as an actor, but stumbled into it while he was consulting for Hollywood productions that were set in the British Empire. He was promoted early on as an Errol Flynn lookalike, but spent most of his career playing villains and kooks.

The world, of course, is full of villains and kooks, and so are Hollywood scripts. As you might imagine, Sutton had a good long career.