Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saturday, August 1, 1970: The Devil Commands (1941)

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head.

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.

Blair's colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter's homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration -- forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love.

Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.

Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.

To his astonishment, he finds that Helen's unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. The building's maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead -- she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.

Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.

Blair's idea is to use Mrs. Walters' naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like an amplifying grid in a vacuum tube.

Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.

Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. He convinces Blair's housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what's in Blair's secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock -- a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads....

Comments:There's only one thing worse than betraying your principles to get what you want. And that, of course, is betraying your principles to get what you want and not getting it.

That's Boris Karloff's fate in The Devil Commands, a clever little film that unfolds with a deliberately ominous pace.

I know, I know. I've complained about these Columbia mad-scientist pictures starring Boris Karloff. And I've suggested that there must have been a crazed producer behind them, a cinematic mad scientist skulking around the studio lot, trying to formulate the perfect Boris Karloff vehicle.

On the surface, this one looks like those earlier, flawed efforts. We've got a convoluted science-fiction premise, a philanthropic scientist, a tragic death and an angry abandonment of society.

But not only does The Devil Commands work, it's one of the best movies we've seen on Horror Incorporated so far.

Now, how could that be true?

First, Karloff never entirely loses our sympathy in this picture. Julian Blair doesn't suddenly decide, like Dr. Savaard in The Man They Could Not Hang, that the world has given him a lousy break and he's going to get his revenge. Nor does he decide, as Dr. Kravaal did in The Man With Nine Lives, that his experiments were just more important than the pesky lives of his small-minded neighbors.

Rather, Blair's judgement is occluded by his love for his wife and the tantalizing possibility that he might be reunited with her. The way he is drawn into this trap is quite plausible; he witnesses her electroencephalogram tracing its way across the paper after she is dead, and though he tries desperately to repeat the experiment, it always seems just out of reach. Each subsequent attempt to increase the psychic energy to pull in Helen's "signal" from beyond the grave ends in disaster: first Karl's near-fatal electrocution, then the grave-robbing in Barsham Harbor, then the murder of Mrs. Marcy. And whenever the good Dr. Blair begins to question the morality of his own actions, he is brought to heel not by a titanic ego or a deranged need to prove his theories, but by the steady and calming influence of Mrs. Walters, table-tipping fake turned parapsychologist.

Played by Anne Revere, Mrs. Walters might have simply served as a cut-rate Lady Macbeth. Instead she becomes the most intriguing character in the film. Though she is angered and humiliated when Blair exposes her as a fake, we also get the impression that once -- long ago -- she believed all her prattle about the spirit world. In Blair she sees a chance to redeem the life she wasted bilking the credulous, sees a means of restoring her shattered faith and fractured dignity.

No wonder her need to press on with the experiments never wavers, even when Blair's does. And no wonder that when Mrs. Marcy stumbles into the lab, she finds the corpses gathered around a table, hands outstretched, as though they were at one of Walter's own seances. Blair thinks he has discovered the scientific basis of the spiritual world, but Mrs. Walters knows better: he has discovered the spiritual basis of the scientific world.

Anne Revere was a Broadway veteran who would win an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth Taylor's mother in National Velvet (1945), but her film career was all but ended in 1951 by the Hollywood blacklist. She later won the Tony award for Toys In the Attic (1960).

You can view part 1 of THE DEVIL COMMANDS below:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Saturday, July 25, 1970: Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).

Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment.

Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household.

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household -- including the servants -- shares in the inheritance. What's more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?

Comments: This week we're offered a bit of a cinematic dog’s breakfast. Night of Terror throws everything against the wall at once, with an almost unhinged expectation that something will stick. We get a deranged killer, a spooky house, “oriental” mystics, Erlenmeyer flasks, secret passages, premature burials, reefer cigarettes, buffoonish policemen, smart-aleck reporters and beautiful young women. Please God, let something stick!

It's a movie that tries so hard to be novel that all attempts at logic and coherence are tossed out the window. Why would Hornsby need to bury himself in a coffin in the backyard in order to test his theory about suspended animation? Is he a scientist, or Harry Houdini?

Why do the police do nothing whatsoever to secure the Rinehart house after the first murder, allowing people to hold seances, and traipse on and off the premises at will? For that matter, why are the police unable to catch a serial killer as reckless and indiscriminate as the Maniac? And what's up with the Maniac's teeth?

And who are Degar and Sika, anyway? How did they end up as domestics in the Rinehart mansion? What religion and / or ethnic group do they represent?

Admittedly, audiences in the 1930s only required a bit of hand-waving toward "the Orient" to be satisfied, but come on -- they have to come from somewhere. I have to presume that Degar is a Sikh, judging by his turban; but if Lugosi is playing someone from the Punjab, he is even less of an actor than I thought. What Sika is supposed to be is anyone's guess. She can't be a Sikh; they don't hold seances. Is she a gypsy, then? (they don't hold seances either, but they are at least associated with the occult in moviegoer's minds). Who knows? And really, who cares? The truth is, watching the movie closely will probably make you enjoy it less, not more.

Sally Blane is one of the bright spots in an otherwise dreary cast. She was the older sister of Loretta Young and her look and mannerisms evoke her more famous sibling.

Oscar Smith plays Martin the chauffeur, a keenly embarrassing "feets don't fail me now" comic relief role. Edwin Maxwell plays the Maniac with such loony gusto that you wonder if going so far over the top was his idea or the director's. As for our old friend Bela, I can only characterize his portrayal of Degar as a typical performance during what proved to be the zenith of his career. He was often paid relatively large sums of money to be the red herring, which he is here.

Who is the real murderer, you ask? Well, I won't tell. The Maniac is, apparently, still at large. The clip below will explain everything.

Good night. Sleep tight. And....pleasant dreams.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday, July 18, 1970: The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body's immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal's last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island.

The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them slowly and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Kravaal eventually comes around. He's astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams' nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor's office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man's cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor's hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams' frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone -- including himself -- in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams' loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs....

Comments: I'm a little worried about the state of modern medicine, at least as it's depicted in The Man With Nine Lives. Dr. Mason, in his opening demonstration of "frozen therapy", monitors his patient's core temperature by slipping a mercury thermometer under her tongue. He lowers her temperature by piling more ice cubes on top of her, and raises it by applying blankets and hot coffee. This is ground-breaking medicine? Her body temperature could be controlled more precisely by putting her in a big styrofoam cooler.

And I'm a bit worried, too, about the competence of law enforcement in Dr. Kravaal's home town. The guy disappears at the same time as the county sheriff, the town's doctor, Jasper Adams and Adams' nephew. Presumably, Kravaal's house was searched by the police. But they find nothing, while two knuckleheads from the city stumble onto the underground chambers that contain the perfectly preserved bodies of the missing people.

Alas, this is only the beginning of the problems with The Man With Nine Lives, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Before I Hang and particularly The Man They Could Not Hang: good scientist develops scientific breakthrough that will benefit all humanity; society misinterprets his genius as madness; good scientist goes bad.

All these films are from Columbia studios, all feature Boris Karloff, and all were made between 1939 and 1940.

Was there a sudden demand for such films? Did some crazed producer decide that the studio should continue grinding away until the definitive mad scientist movie was in the can? Somehow I imagine an obsessive Boris Karloff-esque character working late at the studio, demanding that his screenwriter guinea pigs deliver him the ultimate mad-scientist-gets-revenge-on-an-unbelieving-world narrative, pronto!

Truth is, we've already seen this movie, and -- sorry, Boris Karloff, you were just fine in this one, again -- maybe it's time to move on to something new.

But before we do so, I want to talk about the bits of exposition we see in these old movies.

At the beginning of The Man With Nine Lives, we get that oldest technique for conveying information -- the opening screen crawl:

Added to the many miracles performed by modern science that have accounted for the saving of thousands and thousands of human beings, comes its newest and most modern discovery -- frozen therapy.

Estimates of how long frozen therapy can produce a state of suspended animation range from days to years. But on the fact that diseases can be arrested -- that life can be prolonged, by freezing human beings in ice, the medical world agrees.

In research hospitals today, men and women are alive and breathing -- their bodies encased in ice.

Immediately following this lugubrious set-up, we have another expository device, and one that's nearly as old -- a series of newspaper headlines spinning up to the camera. I complained about the generous use of this technique previously, but here we are again, 42-point type blazing away. CURE FOR CANCER CLAIMED! shouts the Daily Express.

Amazing breakthrough or slow news day? You be the judge, gentle reader.
I always like to read the other news stories on these mocked-up front pages, and here are the other top stories the Express is following:

--$60,000 Damage in Gigantic Eastside Warehouse Fire (I hope no one was hurt);

--Mayor Outlines New Project of Administration (come on, copy desk, you can write snappier headlines than that);

--Stricken Flood Area Victims Receive Aid (as opposed to the non-stricken flood area victims;

--Evans To Drive Mystery Car (how intriguing!) and

-- Only 45 Trudge On In Marathon Hop (kids these days, eh?)

Roger Pryor is the sort of B-picture lead we must accept for this kind of film, and Jo Ann Sayers does well enough as his tall and bony love interest. Really, this is a Boris Karloff picture, and as usual I admire the way Karloff can convey basic decency with an undercurrent of calculating ruthlessness.

Overall, this isn't a bad picture, but it might have been better if we hadn't already seen it couple of times before.

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES is available on DVD from Amazon.