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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saturday, March 27, 1971: The Raven (1935) / The Great Impersonation (1935)





Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin's rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.
Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin's talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin's growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.


Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.
The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers -- he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man's appearance, all right -- by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman's face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.
Vollin arranges for Jean's family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture -- nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside -- and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe...


Comments:  If you take this Karloff and Lugosi chiller at face value -- that is, if you watch it as you would any run-of-the-mill horror film of the 1930s -- you will probably conclude that it does its job pretty well.  It's entertaining enough, and it's moderately suspenseful.  It doesn't leave much of an impact on the audience, but that's all right, because it doesn't demand very much of the audience either.


But if you see it as Universal's follow-up to the previous year's Poe outing The Black Cat, you recognize how far short of the mark it really falls.  This film is far less ambitious than The Black Cat, and as a result it's far less stylish and atmospheric.  More importantly, it fails to make proper use of its stars, particularly Bela Lugosi.


Lugosi tries hard to be scary and ominous here, and unfortunately that is when he tends toward his worst performances.  He furrows his brow and pushes his voice down to its lowest register and tries to wring maximum terror from ev-e-ry sin-gle syl-la-ble. The result is more laughable than scary, but in Lugosi's defense it's hard to imagine Karloff doing much better with the role.  Dr. Vollin is such a gloomy, Poe-obsessed crackpot that you never believe him for an instant.




 He isn't helped by the fact that the screenplay seems unable to decide whether Jean's feelings for Vollin are reciprocated.  In an early scene she seems clearly uncomfortable when Vollin is putting the moves on her; yet she later arranges to surprise him with an interpretive dance based on Poe's "The Raven", which she knows is his favorite work (and in which, significantly, she herself is the raven that comes tapping at the chamber door).  When Judge Thatcher confronts Vollin at his house, he indicates that Jean is "in danger of becoming infatuated" and seems surprised when Vollin doesn't immediately agree to keep her at a distance.


The fact that Vollin is obsessed with her in the first place doesn't seem entirely convincing.  A gloomy, middle-aged man who collects Poe memorabilia and builds a torture chamber in the basement in his spare time doesn't seem likely to fall for the first pretty face he sees on the operating table.  But you never know when Cupid will strike, do you?


Karloff, that most physical of actors, conveys Bateman's suffering convincingly.  But Bateman's notion that ugly people are the most likely to commit ugly acts seems peculiar.  This gives Bateman a story arc to follow -- an opportunity to learn that his ugliness doesn't have to lead to evil -- but It must have seemed just as peculiar in 1935.  Conversely, outer beauty certainly doesn't guarantee inner beauty, which should also have been obvious.

For modern-day evidence of that, look under  Kardashian, Kim.
 


The Great Impersonation




Synopsis: Austrian nobleman Baron Leopold Von Ragostein (Edmund Lowe) has been banished to the wilds of Africa after killing a romantic rival in a duel . He is surprised to come upon his exact look-alike, Sir Everard Dominey, half-dead in the jungle.

Not only are the two identical in appearance, but their lives have gone on parallel trajectories: they had attended Oxford together, and Dominey has recently banished himself to Africa, after he too had been accused to killing a romantic rival. Now Dominey is a dissolute fellow, busily drinking himself to death. But a plan is already germinating in the Baron's mind.

It seems that since his exile, Von Ragostein has been working for an international munitions manufacturer, one that wants to push the nations of Europe toward war. They have agents throughout mainland Europe and now need an agent in England, someone influential who can help ensure that the peace-loving Brits join the fray. Knowing that Sir Everard had once run for Parliament, Von Ragostein decides to have Dominey killed and take his place in England.

Before long he shows up at Dominey Hall and easily passes himself off as Sir Everard. But his reception is a frosty one. Housekeeper Mrs. Unthank (Esther Dale) believes he killed her son Roger (Dwight Frye), though the body was never found. His wife Eleanor (Valerie Hobson) was traumatized by the alleged murder, which took place on their wedding day; moreover, she can still hear the ghost of Roger crying piteously in the night. Dominey Hall itself is in a state of decline and discord.

Everyone in the household is soon astonished by the "new man" that Sir Everard has become. He is no longer a drunken, boorish cad; he is courteous and attentive. He takes charge of the estate, engaging workmen to effect repairs on the dilapidated buildings and crumbling walls. He treats the servants with a decency they have not seen before. He even treats Eleanor well, showing her the affection that had always been denied her. Soon morale at Dominey Hall is high, and Eleanor is well on the road to recovery.
 
But the strange sobbing from Roger's ghost are still being heard in the house, and the Baron's lover Princess Stephanie (Wera Engels) visits Dominey Hall, and begins to suspect that he has fallen in love with Eleanor.
 
But then she learns that Everard Dominey wasn't killed in Africa, but escaped and might have made his way to England. So the question becomes: is this Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey, or Dominey pretending to be Von Ragostein pretending to be Dominey?



Comments: Set shortly before the outbreak of World War I, The Great Impersonation is an interesting espionage thriller that trades heavily on the staunch anti-war sentiments of the 1930s.  Von Ragostein makes it clear early on that the greedy munitions manufacturers that employ him are deliberately pushing the world toward war.   Even during his miserable exile in Africa (where he comically strolls around his bamboo hut wearing an immaculate white suit), Von Ragostein is pitting various local factions against one another in hopes of scrounging up some business for the war profiteers.

The cynicism of Von Ragostein is matched pound for pound by the amorality of drunken playboy and advanced-level cad Dominey, a man who has left his family estate a physical ruin by the same method he employed in turning his wife into a lunatic and his personal life into a shambles.  Having run away to Africa, ostensibly to hunt lions, Dominey proves that he's an incompetent as well: when we first see him he's staggering through the jungle in ragged clothes, abandoned by his guides and gun-bearers and being hunted by the lions he traveled so far to kill.   Once rescued by Von Ragostein, Dominey's first request is for a slug of booze and it's clear that this is not a man who will be missed by anyone.

We are not surprised, therefore, that Dominey returns home and begins to win over the ones he has wronged,  because we're under the impression that this is in fact Von Ragostein.  But we're immediately suspicious: Von Ragostein is overdoing it.  He is too kind to the staff, too absorbed in the task of rebuilding the neglected estate and too attentive to Eleanor  to be the cynic and murderer we met earlier in the film.  Is he being won over by Eleanor's beauty, by the good and honest people he's found at Dominey Hall?  Or by -- dare I say it --  the delights of Merrie England itself?

Well, apparently not.  In the final minutes we're asked to believe that Dominey escaped his would-be assassins, intercepted Von Ragostein himself, took his place and has passed himself off as his own doppelganger in order to trap the foreign agents, and in the process has remade himself.  He not only conquered his alcoholism, but found new purpose in his life, rekindled his love for Eleanor, resolved to live for others instead of himself, and make right his wrongs once and for all.

Such a wrenching about-face seems wildly improbable -- more improbable, in fact, than happening upon one's own double in the middle of the jungle.  Even if you imagine that Dominey's arrival at Von Ragostein's door was no accident, but rather the opening gambit in a complicated con game, it still leaves the question of Dominey's long career of binge-drinking and spousal abuse.  Surely that wasn't a put-on?

In the end we keep coming back to the only conclusion that makes sense, even if it is kind of a strange one: the man who arrived at Dominey Hall is neither Dominey nor Von Ragostein.   There wasn't enough material in either of them to constitute a good man.  Only by mixing and matching their positive attributes do we get one person worth knowing.  And so The Great Impersonation, which never tried very hard to be a horror film, crosses suddenly into the metaphysical.

This film was directed by Alan Crosland, not a household name today, but quite successful in his time.  His career started in New York with the Edison company, and he eventually moved to Hollywood, where he earned a reputation as an able director of big costume dramas like Under the Red Robe.    In 1927 he directed Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first movie musical.  The Great Impersonation was one of the last films Crosland would direct; he died in 1936.



Friday, December 9, 2011

Saturday, March 20, 1971: Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932) / Secret Of the Chateau (1934)



Synopsis: Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik.  Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik's ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. 


At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet.  Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he'll send her a new one.  Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.


But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.




Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla's blood, with the stated intention of finding out the "true connection" between humans and apes. 


But the blood of prostitutes is "dirty", according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human - ape kinship....

Comments: Robert Florey had a long career in film and television.  He directed over a hundred features, everything from musicals to comedies to thrillers (including the Peter Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, which has popped up a couple of times on Horror Incorporated).  Nevertheless, he is perhaps best-remembered as the guy who almost directed Frankenstein.

Florey was a key player in bringing Mary Shelly's novel to the screen. He performed major surgery on John Balderston's script, and no doubt felt he'd earned the right to helm the project.   It must have been a blow to him to see the movie handed off to James Whale instead.

Universal assigned him to Murders In the Rue Morgue, based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story that lacked three important screen elements: an antagonist, a romantic subplot and a discernible three-act structure.



Florey dutifully added all three.  For an antagonist he created scientist / sideshow barker Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) whose scientific theories would have been recognizable as quackery even to audiences in 1932 (the gorilla, which was revealed in the original story to be the culprit, becomes Dr. Mirakle's henchman as well as his scientific muse).

The romantic subplot was achieved by pairing Dupin up with Camille L'Espanaye, who had simply been a crime victim in the original story.

The three-act structure emerged from the first two elements; Dr. Mirakle, improbably, becomes obsessed with Camille, and in order to connect his interest in her to his own proclivities, Mirakle is made to lust after Camille's blood for one of his diabolical experiments.  Dupin puts it all together and we have a fairly straightforward mystery / thriller of the time.

Unfortunately, the result is rather dismal and confused.  Mirakle's motives are never coherent; and in the end we're forced to conclude that he's just a nut.

The problem isn't that Poe's story can't be made into a Hollywood feature (it's an intriguing story, if a brief one), but that Poe's story can't be made into a conventional Hollywood feature.   The short story was subversive because its brutal double homicide  can only be solved by a man who views the whole thing as nothing more than an afternoon's diversion.  When he solves the crime he is rewarded only with the sullen resentment of the police.  And Dupin couldn't care less.

The cinematic Dupin cares all too much -- for Camille, for the murderer's victims, for the people of Paris. He is a bland and earnest fellow, and in the hands of Leon Waycoff he becomes an intolerable bore.  Moreover, Waycoff and Fox are a dreadful screen couple.   There's not the slightest hint of a spark between them.

The only character that manages to hold our attention is Dr. Mirakle, played by a wildly over-the-top Bela Lugosi.  The only reasonable motivation for Mirakle is that he's crazy, and Lugosi goes there.  Boy, does he go there.   By today's standards his performance is incredibly hammy, but there are moments when it does work for him.  His rantings at the terrified prostitute he's holding prisoner, for instance, are convincingly disturbing even today.

Speaking of the terrified prostitute, she was played by a very young Arlene Francis, who was a staple of daytime television from the 1950s through the 1970s.  You may remember her as a longtime panelist on What's My Line.  I sure do.




Secret of the Chateau



Synopsis: When a prominent collector of rare books dies, his impoverished family decides to sell off the collection.  This task is entrusted to book dealer and family friend Monsieur Fos, and as the movie opens an auction is underway at Fos' bookshop in Paris.


Chief Inspector Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk)  visits Fos and tells him that in spite of press reports to the contrary, the collector had been murdered.  Furthermore, Marotte believes the murderer is his old nemesis, a master thief named Prahec.   He warns Fos that Prahec might attempt to kill him in order to secure the most valuable pieces in the collection.


Fos suggests that Prahec might be in attendance at the auction, and while Marotte acknowledges this might be true, he insists that it would not help lead to the master thief's capture.  No one has even seen the elusive Prahec; in fact, no one knows if Prahec is a man or a woman.


Attending the auction is a struggling painter, Paul De Brunay  (Clark Williams) who turns out to be an heir to the estate.  He meets young Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd), and Paul invites her to the family chateau to view a priceless Gutenberg Bible that he is trying to sell.


We learn that Verlaine has a talent for thievery, and has made off with a valuable book from the auction.  On the street she's accosted by Inspector Marotte, who reminds her of her recently-concluded prison sentence.  Marotte suspects that she knows the identity of Prahec, though he has no proof; but when he accuses her Verlaine eludes him easily enough.






Back at her flat, Verlaine finds her boyfriend Lucien has let himself into her apartment.  Verlaine tells him that she wants to end her life of crime, and tells her thuggish paramour that their relationship is over.  Nevertheless, Lucien confirms that a Gutenberg is hidden at the chateau.  He suggests that he and Verlaine conspire to steal it, but Verlaine says flat out that she will do no such thing.


It's clear, however, that this is not a relationship built on trust.  Verlaine soon arrives at the chateau to find the fatuous Monsieur Bardou lording it over the household.  Also present are Paul DeBrunay, his buddy Armand (George E. Stone), Paul's aunt Madame Rombiere (Helen Ware), and Paul's ex-girlfriend Didi (Alice White) who is waiting around to be paid 2,000 francs she claims Paul owes her.  Soon the renowned Professor Racque (William Faversham) shows up expressing an interest in buying the Gutenberg as well.


Rooms are prepared for the guests, and everyone retires for the evening.  But soon a bell is heard clanging in the abandoned chateau tower.  As the guests gather in the hallway, a nervous Madame Rombiere tells the others that according to local legend, the ringing of the tower bell always presages a death....



Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's first broadcast of Secret of the Chateau, a modest drawing-room mystery that is interesting more for what it isn't than for what it is.  

It isn't a horror film, though (like many Universal thrillers of this era) the marketing campaign doggedly tries to convince you otherwise.  It isn't directed with much verve or imagination -- in fact, for most of its running time it feels like a stage play, with characters assembling themselves in polite semi-circles and delivering their lines as though they were performing in a proscenium.  It isn't remarkable in the areas of cinematography and set design; every scene is shot with the ambition of a poverty-row cheapie.  And with a couple of exceptions, it isn't particularly well-acted, with a gaggle of contract players trying to make their stock characters stand out.

The first murder doesn't even occur until nearly two-thirds through the films' 66 minute running time.   The early scenes are padded with dreary comic-relief bits, like the character of Armand  accidentally bidding 25,000 for a rare book, and later trying to oil a squeaky door with salad dressing; or the verbal fencing between stuffy Madame Rombiere and gum-chewing good-time girl Didi:

Madame Rombiere
In my day, nice young ladies didn't drink and smoke.

Didi
In your day, they used to bury their dead.  Now they let them sit around on terraces, tutting.

Madame Rombiere
Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!

Didi
Stick around, I can do a lot better.




But like the rain after a drought the murders finally begin, and Chief Inspector Marotte shows up to turn the proceedings into a fairly standard whodunit.

If anything makes Secret of the Chateau seem like a ghost story, it's the presence of Clark Williams, a leading man so insubstantial you'll swear you can see light shining through his skin.  But I did enjoy Claire Dodd's performance as the crafty and conflicted Verlaine, and Ferdinand Gottschalk manages a certain playfulness as Marotte, the entertaining but ineffectual detective ("Everyone has answers!" he snorts with annoyance at every alibi).  Osgood Perkins, who is dryly amusing at the butler, Martin, had a long career in supporting roles, though he is best-known today as the father of Anthony Perkins.

This is the first "new" film we've had on Horror Incorporated for a while.  It might seem surprising that we haven't yet run through all 52 titles in the Shock! package, but it's true: 19 have not been broadcast.  A glance over the titles suggests we're not missing much, though Man-Made Monster and Night Key would be welcome additions to the line-up.  As for Son of Shock!, we've seen all but four, with Black Friday the most promising no-show to date.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Interlude: Frankenstein turns 80


It was exactly eighty years ago today -- Saturday, November 21, 1931 -- that James Whale's Frankenstein was released.  Here's a bit of what New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall had to say at the time:


Out of John L. Balderston's stage conception of the Mary Shelley classic, "Frankenstein," James Whale, producer of "Journey's End" as a play and as a film, has wrought a stirring grand-guignol type of picture, one that aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.
It is an artistically conceived work in which Colin Clive, the Captain Stanhope of the London stage production of the R. C. Sherriff play, was brought from England to act the rĂ´le of Frankenstein, the man who fashions a monster that walks and thinks. It is naturally a morbid, gruesome affair, but it is something to keep the spectator awake, for during its most spine-chilling periods it exacts attention. It was Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, the firm responsible for this current picture, who presented Lon Chaney in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and while, as everybody knows, Quasimodo was a repellent sight, he was a creature for sympathy compared to the hideous monster in this "Frankenstein." Boris Karloff undertakes the Frankenstein creature and his make-up can be said to suit anybody's demands. He does not portray a robot but a monster made out of human bodies, and the reason given here for his murderous onslaughts is that Frankenstein's Man Friday stole an abnormal brain after he had broken the glass bowl containing the normal one. This Frankenstein does not know.
No matter what one may say about the melodramatic ideas here, there is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it "Dracula" is tame and, incidentally, "Dracula" was produced by the same firm, which is also to issue in film form Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."

 Hall reviews four other movies in the same issue of the paper: The Cuban Love Song, Reckless Living, His Woman, and Wonders of the Congo.  All forgotten now.  But Frankenstein will never be forgotten.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Saturday, March 13, 1971: Dracula's Daughter (1936) / Behind The Mask (1932)





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 in the building 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: Falling in love with your employer is usually a bad idea, though it happens frequently enough in the movies and sometimes even in real life.  Pain and disaster is by far the most likely outcome of such dalliances but, as the ancient philosopher El Debarge once pointed out, the heart is not so smart.

Jeffrey Garth’s secretary Janet has long carried a torch for her boss in Dracula’s Daughter.   The fact that Garth is ignorant of this seems improbable, especially since Janet is played by the delectable Marguerite Churchill.  But we shouldn’t be too surprised that he doesn’t notice: she is like the air Garth breathes, absolutely vital to him but too easily taken for granted.  So when he begins to fall for Countess Marya Zaleska, Janet does everything she can to derail their romance.

Her machinations are fairly innocent, played for comic relief: she stands at the door and tells the countess that Jeffrey is out when he is really in, and makes prank calls to the Countess’ flat when she knows Garth is there with her.  Her jealousy manifests itself in benign ways, presumably because her intentions are not entirely selfish – she sincerely wants to steer him away from a woman that she knows is bad news.

Of course the screenwriters stack the deck heavily against the Countess, who winds up kidnapping Janet and holding her hostage in order to compel Garth’s promise of eternal companionship.  This conveniently provides him with a reason to hold her in contempt as well as an opportunity to consider what Janet really means to him.  In the end Garth is able to hold the supine Janet in his arms and see her for what she is, namely, the Pepper Potts to his Tony Stark.

That employer-employee romance ends happily, but the other one in the movie doesn’t: Countess Zaleska’s relationship with her servant Sandor is anything but healthy.  Sandor clearly wants her to fail in her quest to become human again, and late in the film we find out why: the countess had at one point promised him eternal life and companionship.  How and why the countess became involved with her creepy troll of a manservant is never explained, but it’s clear that whatever relationship they once shared has curdled.  He still craves the nocturnal lifestyle that she no longer wants.  



She is like a teenager who realizes she doesn't want to run with the goth kids anymore.  She has outgrown Sandor and now expects him to go quietly back to the original role he played in her life: namely, a member of the household staff. This, of course, is doomed to fail, and in the end it’s Sandor who pierces her heart with an arrow, like a demented Cupid.  He Is gunned down seconds later, and this is probably how he would have preferred it anyway.  I suspect he always saw himself as Romeo to her Juliet.





Behind the Mask


Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).



Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.


Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.


But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.


But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….







Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's third screening of Behind the Mask, a crime thriller with some incidental horror elements, most notably Dr. Steiner's private hospital, where patients check in but don't check out.  

The presence of Karloff and Van Sloan promise the sort of cinematic hooliganism found in a Universal picture, but this opus was produced at the more straight-laced Columbia studios and for that reason horror must take a back seat.  Tough-talking G-men are at center stage here, as are pretty girls and double-crossing ex-cons.  But Karloff is perfectly fine, and Edward Van Sloan wrings every drop of evil he can from his lines at the end of the picture ("The pain, whilst I am cutting through the outer layers of skin," he purrs, "will not be unendurable.  It is only when I commence to carve on your vital organs that you will know you are having... an experience."  Mwa ha ha!)

As marvelous a heavy as Van Sloan is, the film might have worked better with a stronger narrative thread.  A Maguffin would have helped tighten the story somewhat and keep things moving.  As it is, the drug-running ring and hostile hospital subplots don't mesh very well, and the viewer is liable to forget -- more than once -- exactly what's supposed to be at stake.


Interlude: Science Fiction Double Feature

Hey you!



Let's say you live in the Twin Cities area and you're looking for a bit of good clean fun this weekend.  Howsabout a 3-D double feature?

The Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis is showing It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon on a double bill.  Horror Incorporated introduced me to both of these films, and I've always loved them.  Believe me, there is nothing like seeing them on the big screen.

The films are running Friday, Saturday and Sunday (November 18, 19 and 20) starting at 7:00.  I'll be there for every show.  Tell 'em Uncle Mike sent you.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Saturday, March 6, 1971: House of Dracula (1945) / The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)









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: I impatiently brushed off House of Dracula when it aired previously, grumbling that these silly monster rallies weren't worth my time.  However, I have since realized my time isn't worth that much.  This movie does have some interesting ideas anyway, so let's take a moment to unpack them.

Dr. Edelmann's ability to add vampirism and lycanthropy to the standard medical textbooks might seem improbable.  But remember that the good doctor is an educated man of the mid-20th century.  Back then science promised to illuminate all the dark recesses of human fears and superstitions.  By midcentury, in fact, there was a growing suspicion that there were no problems that science couldn't solve.

So it was only a matter of time before vampires and werewolves would be reassessed as medical conditions on a par with smallpox and polio, every bit as easy to understand and almost as easy to conquer.  This isea was bubbling up across the horror and science-fiction genres. While House of Dracula is an early attempt to provide a science-fiction explanation for vampire lore, it wasn't the first (for example, it was predated by A. E. Van Vogt's short story "Asylum", published in 1942)  nor was it particularly influential; Richard Matheson was clearly coming from another direction when he wrote his seminal 1954 novel I Am Legend.  That novel was enormously influential; in fact,  people have been cribbing from Matheson ever since.*




In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last normal human on Earth after a plague turns everyone else into vampires.  He is a smart and rational man, and during the course of the novel he trains himself to be a biologist in order to isolate the plague that causes vampirism.  This is an important facet of the novel, one missing from its  (three) screen adaptations.**  Neville has an admirably realistic view of science: it isn't technological sorcery that can only be practiced by the members of its designated priesthood.  Rather, it is a system of problem-solving that is based on clearly defined rules.

This is pretty important, I think, and it's where the wheels come off  House of Dracula.  For all the hand-waving toward reason and truthDr. Edelmann is a member of the designated priesthood, and for all the appeals to science and rationality, Edelmann is just a sorcerer with an alternate pedigree.  For all the patter about blood parasites, at the end of the day Dracula's blood is dirty and corrupt, and when Edelmann gets a dose of it he becomes dirty and corrupt as well.

And the werewolf "cure" by surgery could just as easily have been supernatural in origin; in fact the rare plant that is a necessary ingredient to the medical procedure might as well have magical properties, since there is no alternate way to derive the chemical which it provides.

Ironically Frankenstein's monster, which is the only one that can claim a science-fiction origin, is in a coma for nearly the entire picture.  It wakes up in time to stumble around for a few minutes and then get burned to death.  Again.

The death of noble Dr. Edelmann comes across as genuinely tragic, especially when you consider that Henry Frankenstein did much worse and got off much easier.  Jane Adams turns in a very sympathetic performance as Nina, Dr. Edelmann's hunchbacked assistant, though there is something palpably nasty about the undignified way she's disposed of at the end.

Clearly Martha O'Driscoll's Milliza is seen as the "good" girl in this picture, and she is allowed to walk off into the sunset (or moonrise, if you prefer) holding hands with the man of her dreams -- even if he turns out to be Lon Chaney, Jr.







The Man They Could Not Hang




Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient's body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob's heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob's heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.
At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .


On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.





The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.



Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors -- as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney -- have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard's voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he's already dead....


Comments: The character of Dr. Henryk Savaard suffers from two basic problems in The Man They Could Not Hang.  The first problem is the stereotypical tone-deafness of a scientist who has lived too long in his own head.  During Dr. Savaard's trial, he pleads with the jury to consider the possible benefits of his research.  He likens surgery to trying to repair a car while the engine is running.  Being able to suspend all autonomic functions, he explains, will make it possible to transplant organs, even the heart, opening up the prospect of eternal life. He thinks that by capturing the imagination of his audience he can mitigate what they view as his criminal negligence.  But those gathered in the courtroom scoff at his ideas.

This line of patter is, of course, less crazy-sounding than it would have been in 1939 (what Dr. Savaard invented was essentially a pump that would keep the blood circulating while the heart was stopped.  Such pumps are common today, as are organ transplants) but it's still difficult to work up a lot of sympathy for Dr. Savaard's situation.

I presume there were medical releases of some kind, even in 1939, and Savaard would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd gotten his lab assistant to sign one before experimenting on him.

And if he had resisted the urge to vow bloody vengeance against everyone in the courtroom, he might have gotten more sympathy from the audience, if not the judge.

Dr. Savaard's second big problem is that in his single-minded pursuit of revenge he kills his most important friend and ally.  This is Dr. Lang, murdered in order to serve as Dr. Savaard's fall guy.  This killing is so outside the rules of fair play -- even in a revenge story -- that we must wonder if Savaard's cold-bloodedness is a side effect of the "treatment" that brought him back from the dead.

It's never brought up as a possibility in The Man They Could Not Hang, but Dr. Savaard's turn to evil would have been more plausible and more dramatic if it had been caused by an unexpected product of being hanged, frozen like a popsicle, mended and brought back to life.  It seems plausible that meddling with the unknown will only lead to trouble.  After all, there are some things that Man was not meant to know.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?





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* George Romero's film Night of the Living Dead (1968) is clearly influenced by I Am Legend, both in terms of its premise (wretched undead outside, human protagonists barricaded inside) and in its scientific explanation for the sudden ubiquity of the undead.  Zombies had heretofore been described as the products of black magic.  Romero's film  referred to radiation brought back by an unmanned Venus probe as the cause; today zombie movies are a staple of the horror genre, and the rise of the living dead is routinely ascribed to a virus of some sort.  This has become the default concept of zombies in the public mind, and you would be hard-pressed to find any reference to black magic in a modern zombie story.
**Interestingly, all the film adaptations omit Neville's self-made scientific credentials, either for reasons of storytelling economy or because the screenwriters felt his blue-collar background was insufficiently glamorous.  In The Last Man On Earth (1964) Neville is a microbiologist who just happens to be immune from the plague.  In both The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2008) he is both a microbiologist and a career military officer.  His occupation in the novel is never defined; but he had apparently worked in a manufacturing plant of some kind, perhaps as a machinist.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Saturday, February 27, 1971:The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)


Synopsis: Times are hard in the village of Frankenstein, and a town hall meeting is being held to discuss the situation. The village's reputation has suffered greatly since the events of Son of Frankenstein (1939) and now the inn stands empty, the children go hungry, and a general atmosphere of despair hangs over the town. What can be done to make life better for the citizens?
Well, not much, the mayor admits. But he allows the villagers to go blow up the abandoned castle of the Frankensteins, which they believe is still carrying the family curse.


Of course it can't be a real Frankenstein movie without a torch-wielding mob, and this one races off to carry out its mission.


Meanwhile, we find that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has remained in the old castle, playing a rustic horn (which sounds suspiciously like an oboe) by the sulfur pit where his friend the monster was destroyed in the previous film. When the villagers trigger the explosives and blow apart the castle, the monster is freed, and Ygor is delighted to find that he is still alive, though greatly weakened. The two of them flee the destroyed castle.










They make their way to the nearby village of Vasaria. But the monster is soon captured by the police and imprisoned, and the village prosecutor, (Ralph Bellamy) goes to the local psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and asks him to come and assess this difficult case.


But before Frankenstein can do so, Ygor pays him a visit as well. He tells Ludwig that he knows something the people of Vasaria don't know -- that he's the brother of the hated Wolf Frankenstein and the son of the even-more-hated Henry Frankenstein. Moreover, Ygor threatens to reveal this information to the locals if he doesn't act to help the monster.

Compelled to hide the monster in his laboratory, Ludwig decides that it must be destroyed once and for all. He prepares to drain all of the electricity out of the monster's body and disassemble it piece by piece, essentially reversing Henry's installation instructions. But he is visited by the ghost of his father, who implores him to carry on his work and recharge the monster to full power....





Comments: In writing previously about Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I speculated that Elsa Frankenstein must have been the daughter of Ludwig Frankenstein, because (a) Wolf is exile and (b) she came from Vasaria, just as Ludwig did. Seeing Ghost of Frankenstein again, I realize that Elsa was under my nose the entire time. In fact, she plays a prominent role in this film -- she is clearly identified as Ludwig's daughter. How could I have forgotten her?

The answer is simple, really. I'd forgotten her because she is played by Evelyn Ankers, who never leaves any impression on me whatsoever, either good or bad.

Ankers possesses a sort of generic prettiness, but her looks aren't remarkable in any way. She is a reasonably good actress, but lacks a definitive style. She has just enough screen presence to be cast as the female lead in Universal horror films, but not quite enough to prevent her from fading into the background whenever the camera is pointed in her direction.

Compare her to Ilona Massey, who played Elsa in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and Anker's shortcomings become clear. Massey is in every way a striking presence: she projects an aloof and aristocratic manner that barely masks her guilt and anguish over her family's checkered history. Her Elsa is sharp-eyed and intelligent, someone who sees what is coming and cannot quite prevent it from overtaking her. While these attributes aren't written into the script, they are evident in Massey's face and delivery; these are the hints toward an interior life that good actors are able to communicate. Ankers is simply incapable of a performance of that caliber, and so her Elsa is entirely forgettable.

But Elsa's character doesn't have a lot to do here, so perhaps it's unfair to blame Ankers.  This movie ultimately belongs to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays Ludwig, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor.  The two actors are at the absolute top of their game, and particularly riveting in their early scenes together.  Ludwig has made a life for himself beyond the shadow of the Frankenstein clan, but now he is suddenly confronted by a man who can take all that away.  For his part, Ygor knows how much Ludwig enjoys the status and the prestige of his current position; furthermore, he knows that Ludwig's family knows nothing of his father's crimes.  Ludwig is a man with everything to lose, and therefore a tempting target for extortion.  Had money been Ygor's motive, things would have ended much more happily.

Ralph Bellamy appears as Vasaria's prosecutor as well as Elsa's love interest.  He's strangely unengaging here, much as he was in The Wolf Man.  But he's a great pro, and it's lovely to see an actor in this sort of role who isn't  Patric Knowles.

The Boogie Man Will Get You



Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.  Remote inns are especially unpopular destinations these days, due to wartime rationing of tires and gasoline.




His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.



The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us.  Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort.  He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.


Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Parks) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: I wasn't looking forward to seeing this Boris Karloff - Peter Lorre madcap comedy a second time, but I did it just the same. And I did it for you, gentle reader. Was it painful?

Yes, it was. Thanks for asking. You mustn't feel too sorry for me, though, because The Boogie Man Will Get You does have its moments.

For instance, Miss Jeff Donnell was quite engaging as Winnie Slade. Donnell was never regarded as leading lady material -- while she would be considered reasonably attractive here on Earth, in the alternate universe of Hollywood movies she is unacceptably homely. She played a prominent role in the excellent Humphrey Bogart vehicle In a Lonely Place; and she gives this distinctly minor comedy her all as well.

Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff both seem to be having a great time, and I must admit that it is fun to watch them sending up their own favored genre.  Lorre in particular has deft comic timing and his little bits of stage business -- like casually placing a kitten into his inside pocket of his coat -- are a lot of fun.

Since my last viewing I'd entirely forgotten the presence of Frank Puglia, who shows up late as Silvio Baciagalupi,  a wacky Italian soldier who escapes from a POW camp and is running around the New England countryside threatening to blow things up. In spite of 10 - 15 minutes of screen time, Puglia doesn't even appear in the credits (which seems quite strange today, given that every grip, hairdresser and caterer is now credited).

Puglia kept busy during the war, appearing in nine movies in 1942 and another 10 in 1943. He often played "ethnic" roles (usually Italians and Latinos) and appeared as Dr. Leonardo in the fondly-remembered Ray Harryhausen opus 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).  He made a smooth transition into television, doing guest shots on countless drama programs throughout the 1960s.

Larry Parks is an amiable presence in this film, and seems well-suited to screwball comedy; but what he had really hoped for was a career as a dramatic lead.  He enjoyed some recognition for playing Al Jolson in The Jolson Story  (1946) but in 1951 he ended up on the Hollywood blacklist.  His movie career ruined, he carried on gamely with stage work and a night club act, hoping that the controversy would eventually blow over and that he'd be able to resume working in Hollywood.  That never happened.  But it's difficult to say if his career would have ever taken off, with or without the blacklist.   The Boogie Man Will Get You appears to be his only genre film.



Friday, October 7, 2011

Saturday, February 20, 1971: Werewolf of London (1935) / The Black Room (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 Vasquez Rocks*), 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: Werewolf of London was released more than 75 years ago, but even to the modern viewer it's obvious that Wilfred Glendon is a man out of his time. An inhabitant of 20th-century London, he nevertheless lives a distinctly 19th-century lifestyle, sporting starched Edwardian collars and frock coats and a pince-nez to go along with his no-fun-allowed attitude. By comparison Paul Ames, the Americanized Brit, seems like a barrel of laughs in his tweed suit and pencil-thin mustache.


The screenplay is actually doing a difficult balancing act throughout. We must follow Glendon and sympathize with him as the doomed protagonist that he is; but we must also be conscious of how his single-minded obsession is pushing Lisa into the arms of another man. Early in the film we hear Wilfred teased for leaving his beautiful wife alone for months on end while he searches for exotic plants. Already we are being prepared to feel sorry for his loss and at the same time hold Lisa blameless for her decision to leave him for Paul.

In fact Paul and Lisa are so on the up-and-up that they are always careful to inform Wilfred of whatever plans they have together, and invite him along. He is always the one who refuses their offers to join them in country walks and moonlight rides -- surprisingly romantic outings for a pair who wish to demonstrate their innocent intentions-- and while we easily understand that a closeted werewolf wants to avoid moonlight, perhaps Wilfred also knows that he would be a fifth wheel, and sooner or later he must let Lisa go her own way.


This creates another ticklish job for the screenwriters: it must be clear that Lisa is falling for Paul, so that Wilfred's jealousy will make her a credible focus of his rage; but she must also remain loyal to Wilfred so that she retains the sympathy of the audience. As so often happens in the movies, this little problem is solved with a convenient death. The final scene has the titular beast being mortally wounded and then, in a decidedly un-werewolflike fashion, gives a dramatic dying speech in which he absolves Lisa of any blame :

Thanks....thanks for the bullet. It was the only way. In a few moments now I shall know why all this had to be. Lisa....goodbye. Goodbye, Lisa. I'm sorry I couldn't have made you happier.
I prefer less chatty werewolves, myself, but at least Dr. Glendon had the good sense to cut it off there. No telling how long he could have continued blabbing on in this manner before one of the policemen in attendance thanked him with another bullet.


THE BLACK ROOM





Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined "black room" of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.


Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.


The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother's rule began. At Gregor's invitation, Anton returns home.


At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.





When Gregor is implicated in the disappearance of Mashka, a gypsy serving girl, the townspeople rise up. They storm the castle and demand Gregor be handed over to them.


To everyone's surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.


While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there -- including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.


As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. "The prophesy will be fulfilled!" Anton insists. "From the grave?" Gregor asks sarcastically. "Yes," Anton says as he dies. "From the grave!"



Comments: We saw The Black Room just over a month ago (January 16th, to be precise) but I won’t complain about it popping up on the schedule again.  It’s a delightful film, one that proceeds at a much livelier pace than Werewolf of London (which gets out of the gate quickly with an opening sequence in Tibet, but bogs down in an endless garden-party scene at the Glendon house).

It's interesting that these two horror films, released in the same year, both seem to be making a bid for A-picture respectability.  Henry Hull famously refused to wear Jack Pearce’s elaborate makeup design, leaving his werewolf with a relatively human face (Pearce’s wolf makeup was eventually used for 1941’s The Wolf Man). Moreover, Hull’s werewolf is not just a senseless beast.  It can think and reason; it can even speak.  In fact Werewolf of London plays somewhat like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde, right down to Dr. Glendon’s decision to rent a room in a London slum.   The movie seems to yearn for the kind of literary pedigree that the Stevenson tale enjoyed, and seems to want the audience to view all this silly werewolf business as a metaphor for Glendon's inner demons.  The movie has a hard time taking Dr. Glendon’s affliction seriously, and as a result we can’t take it too seriously either.

And in spite of The Black Room’s horror-film tropes it gets all literary and showy on us, struggling to look like an Alexander Korda production instead of the low-rent Universal melodrama that it is.  Gregor's speech to Mashka about pears (in which he declares that pears are the best fruit because they're delicious and entirely disposable -- an obvious allusion to his opinion of women) might as well have been written for Charles Laughton for his turn in The Private Life of King Henry VIII a couple of years earlier.  And the whole look of the movie, dressed as it was in Romantic Revival style, shows its costume drama pretensions all too clearly.

But both movies are largely forgotten today outside of the horror genre, which is just as well.  Each of them works best when the horror elements are taken at face value.   The Black Room, in particular, works very well indeed.


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*In an earlier post I misidentifed this location as Bronson Canyon, another well-used exterior locale.  Vasquez Rocks was used endlessly in movies and television, becoming so familiar that it was part of a visual joke in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991).  In that movie the lads watch an old episode of Star Trek, in which Captain Kirk fights a lizard-like alien on the escarpment; later, Bill and Ted's evil robot twins kidnap them, take them up the same escarpment, and kill them.  All in good fun.