Thursday, December 16, 2010

Saturday, May 30, 1970: Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death.

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution.

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.

But moments before the execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: Drumroll, please: tonight we have the first Horror Incorporated feature that doesn't come from Universal Studios.

Before I Hang was part of the Son of Shock! package, which we discussed here; of the 74 movies included in Shock! and Son of Shock! 62 were from Universal. The remaining 12 were from Columbia.

Why Columbia? It's because TV distributor Screen Gems was owned by Columbia studios, which could toss in titles from its own vaults.

But it couldn't toss in many. Columbia had only dabbled in the horror genre, and it certainly hadn't developed the familiar faces and the durable franchises that Universal had. So these are relatively small and forgotten movies, somewhat on a par with the lesser-known Universal efforts of the time.

Before I Hang is certainly minor, but it does have its charms. It has an admirably goofy premise, equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Hands of Orlac.

The whole movie turns on the idea that the recipient of a blood transfusion might absorb the personal characteristics of the donor. Transfusions weren't new in 1940; in the 19th century it was found that a human-to-human transfusion would save one patient, but kill the next, and no one knew why. It wasn't until the advent of blood typing at the dawn of the 20th century that the procedure moved past the experimental stage. Vaccines against a host of diseases were perfected in the first decades of the 20th century, and such things as injections and inoculations and blood draws were becoming increasingly common.

Misperception and misinformation persisted, of course, as they always do in the wake of new discoveries. As late as the 1920s, Russian serologist Alexander Bogdanov believed that taking regular transfusions of whole blood was a potential fountain of youth. And it's easy to imagine why one would think such a thing. Blood has always represented life and vitality in the human mind, and the great new strides in medicine seemed to offer unlimited promise.

Which brings us to the rejuvenated Dr. Garth meeting with his elderly friends in his drawing room, offering them each the chance to be young again. Rather than jumping to their feet, rolling up their sleeves and shouting "Me first!", as one might expect, they each shrug and say, in effect, no thanks, I've lived a rich and full life, it's gone on long enough. This comes across as fairly improbable (I'm guessing that the screenwriter was very young), and the movie would have been better served if the men were greatly tempted to be young again but were held back by the nagging sense that somehow it was all too easy, that there was a catch they hadn't been able to figure out yet.

This, of course, is where horror films always diverge from science fiction films. In horror there is always a catch, and the cost of getting what you want inevitably proves to be ruinous.

But Before I Hang never pushes that sensibility very hard, and comes across a bit muddled as a result. Garth is depicted in the movie's first act as a kindly old scientist, guilty only of acceding to his dying patient's request for an end to his suffering, interested only in the good of humanity. He is no Faust, willing to trade away eternity for fleeting success. The movie works so hard to put us on Garth's side that we cannot hold him accountable for what happens next.

So we wind up with a fairly anemic villain, as Garth is repeatedly -- and predictably -- possessed with the soul of a serial killer.

And as Garth comes under suspicion almost immediately for his crimes, there's very little suspense to be had as the film totters on to its conclusion.

But as a showcase for Boris Karloff's talent, Before I Hang excels. It struck me once again how physical an actor Karloff was. His body language for the elderly Dr. Garth is spot on. A big, ungainly-looking man, Karloff isn't able to mimic the frailness of a septuagenerian, but his whole physical demeanor is brilliant -- the stoop-shouldered gait, the slowness in reaction time, the slight fogginess in his general demeanor. The old-age makeup in this film isn't bad, but Karloff has do most of the work himself (unlike Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, whose state-of-the-art age makeup didn't hide the fact that he walked and talked like, well, Tom Cruise).

And what a joy it is to see Karloff working with Edward Van Sloan again! The two are delightful to watch. Interestingly, Van Sloan looks younger than the characters he played a decade earlier in Frankenstein and Dracula, making me wonder if he took a bit of Dr. Garth's serum himself.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Interlude: Mant! (1962)

Gentle reader, I apologize for the delay in bringing the latest Horror Incorporated feature to you. I'll have a summary of our next feature up shortly.

In the meantime, please enjoy the trailer for Lawrence Woolsey's 1962 chiller Mant!

They sure don't make pictures like that anymore.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Saturday, May 23, 1970: The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

Synopsis: Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small town of Domingo. She's been hired as a nurse / companion to a reclusive blind woman, Zenovia Dollard. Moments after the bus has dropped Jean off in town she bumps into Hal Wentley, an old school friend who has long carried a torch for her. Jean seems uncomfortable seeing him again, and Hal is disappointed that she isn't in town to visit him. But when the expected car from the Dollard mansion doesn't arrive to pick her up, Jean accepts a ride out to the place from Hal.

Dollard's place is far out of town, a creepy house complete with a creepy mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton). It seems Miss Dollard has trouble keeping assistants on staff, which might seem surprising given the light duties involved, but might not when you consider there's a freakish-looking manservant skulking around in the shadows. Miss Dollard is troubled to hear that Jean knows someone in town, and expresses the hope that Jean will stay for a long while. She certainly doesn't want Jean to run off and get married, as her last assistant did.

Meanwhile, the local farmers are upset at a wave of cattle deaths that have been occurring throughout the area, deaths that have been left the local soil expert (Milburn Stone) baffled; the cattle deaths indicate that poison plants are growing in the area, yet there are no such plants to be found anywhere. One by one, the farmers conclude that they must sell out before they're ruined.

Back at the mansion, Jean settles into her new duties, which prove to be less than taxing. But she is alarmed by the baleful stares and the unwelcome attention from the grotesque Mario, and puzzled that she sleeps so soundly during the night, almost as if she were drugged.

What she does not suspect is that she is being drugged, every night; what's more, the sinister Miss Dollard is draining her blood each night in order to feed a brood of carnivorous plants in the basement, and that she is using the plants to make a deadly poison....

Comments: Remember Gale Sondergaard? She played the conniving Irene Herrick in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which we saw on April 11. The Minnesota native must have made an impression at Universal when she appeared in a 1944 Sherlock Holmes movie called The Spider Woman. Because the studio decided to use the same character again in a different setting.

Not exactly the same character, mind you; instead of Adrea Spedding of London, Sondergaard was now playing the allegedly blind Zenovia Dollard of Domingo, a wealthy small-town recluse with evil on her mind.

She's trading in poisonous orchids rather than poisonous arachnids this time, but never mind -- Sondergaard was quite good at projecting an outwardly friendly demeanor while suggesting something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.

And she projects just the right sort of menace for this creepy little mystery story, which cleverly uses Jean's vulnerability to ratchet up the suspense. Both Miss Dollard and Mario are interested in Jean for different reasons, neither of which can be described as wholesome.

And the small town of Domingo is shown to add to Jean's sense of isolation and paranoia: when she wants to quietly mail a letter to her predecessor, who left a forwarding address in New York, she is thwarted by the nosy denizens of small-town America, ca. 1946. The Domingo postmaster is suspicious even of her request for an air-mail stamp ("Air mail? Goodness! What's your hurry, miss?").

If I have any complaint about the character of Dollard, it's that she's a little too evil. Don't get me wrong, I love evil women*, but she seems to be trying too hard. Zenovia, honey, isn't it evil enough to drug your hired help so that you can drain her blood in order to breed carnivorous plants so that you can poison the local cattle population? Must you pretend to be blind as well? That's just showing off, darling.

But she is by far the most interesting character in the movie, even more intriguing than Rondo Hatton's glowering Mario. We must fill in a lot of the blanks in Mario's background, and this ambiguity serves the plot well. The movie suggests that he had an overweening interest in some of Miss Dollard's past caretakers; but beyond that we have little to go on. Hatton's performance here is somewhat better than that in House of Horrors; he makes the most of a non-speaking part, conveying a wide range of emotion with some very subtle body language.

Brenda Joyce is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies. About her performance in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, I can only say that she is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies.

Interestingly, there were originally twelve speaking roles in Spider Woman Strikes Back; five of them were cut out prior to release, and the film was trimmed down to less than an hour. I can't say the brief running time hobbles the narrative. The movie moves along at a good clip, and none of the scenes appear to be superfluous.

The Spider Woman Strikes Back was never released on home video, but there are businesses that will burn DVDs for you from old 16mm prints. The quality isn't stellar, but most of these movies can be had if you are persistent and willing to pay.

The truth is, there is very little you can't find online. One thing I'll say about the internet -- for better or worse, it's good at bringing obsessive people together.


*I even married one! Ha ha! Thank you, folks, thank you, I'll be here all week.

(Actually, at the rate I'm going, I'll be here until the spring of 2020.)