Sunday, March 27, 2011

Saturday, August 29, 1970: The Mummy's Hand (1940) / Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

The Mummy's Hand

Synopsis: Archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) and his sidekick / comic relief Babe Jenson (Wallace Ford) are down on their luck in Cairo. Unable to secure funding for their expeditions, they are preparing to return to America by steamship. But by chance Banning finds a broken pot at a bazaar that seems to indicate the location of the tomb of ancient Egyptian princess Ananka -- a remarkable find, should it prove to be true.

Taking it to the Cairo Museum, Banning's discovery is verified as authentic by museum curator Dr. Petrie (Charles Trowbridge). Unexpectedly, though, the influential Professor Andoheb (George Zucco) declares that the pot is a fake.

Professor Andoheb knows perfectly well the pot is authentic. But he's pulling double duty -- not only is he the recognized expert on Egyptian artifacts, he is also the high priest of a secret order, chosen to guard the sanctity of Princess Ananka's tomb.

Banning and Jenson are discouraged, but by chance they meet an American stage magician (Cecil Kelloway) who agrees to bankroll their dig. What's more, the magician has a beautiful daughter (Peggy Moran) who insists on coming along on the expedition.

Using the map on the pot as a guide, the expedition unearths a tomb - but it is not Princess Ananka's tomb. Rather, it's the tomb of Kharis. Unlike most mummies, Kharis has a job -- he is Princess Ananka's last line of defense. And it isn't long before Andoheb shows up at the site, to bring the mummy to life with a potion of tana leaves, and instruct it to kill all those who would dare defile the tomb of the princess....

Comments: Unlike its contemporaries Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy (1932) had no direct sequels. Rather, eight years passed before the release of The Mummy's Hand, a movie which might best be described -- in modern studio parlance-- as a "reboot" or "reimagining" of the original. None of the characters from the first film appear or are referenced in this one. Even though footage from the first film is used, and a forbidden-love subplot is borrowed, Kharis, not Im-Ho-Tep, is the titular mummy; Princess Ananka stands in for Ankes-en-Amon; the Scroll of Thoth disappears, replaced by the device of the tana leaves; and instead of the somber Whemple family, we have two archeologists so light-hearted that one can imagine them being played by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. (Well, I did imagine it; and spent the first third of the movie wondering if they were about to break into song or do their grating patty-cake routine with Andoheb's goons.)

Perhaps the most radical change is the concept of the mummy itself. Ardeth Bey was shown to be physically frail, incapable of doing much of anything as a mummy, even an ambulatory one. Passing himself off as a modern Egyptian, his main weapon was hypnotic control. In The Mummy's Hand, Kharis is more like a traditional zombie: largely unaware of its surroundings and incapable of reason. It is almost entirely under Andoheb's control, a slave to the tana leaf potion which is always placed, like so many dog treats, in the tents of the men it is ordered to kill.

The Mummy's Hand is clearly a lesser movie than its predecessor, but in spite of some glaring plot holes (why would the ancient Egyptians festoon pots and medallions with a map to a forbidden tomb?) it is still quite lively and entertaining.

Dick Foran is a passable though undistinguished lead, and Wallace Ford (whom you may remember from the goony Night of Terror) wears out his welcome rather quickly. Peggy Moran is supposed to be the love interest here, but she spends most of the time looking sour, marking time until she needs to be rescued in the third act.

All three characters are rather unceremoniously disposed of in The Mummy's Tomb, but that still lies in the future. For now, we can admire the work of Cecil Kelloway, who plays the Great Solvani with infectious enthusiasm; and that old smoothie George Zucco, whom you may remember as the love-sick professor from The Mad Ghoul. And Tom Tyler does as well as one can expect wrapped in bandages, with his eyes blacked out frame-by-frame in each of his mummy close-ups.

Ladies, perhaps you've dated better-looking guys. I admit he needs to work on his personal hygiene. But he's from a good family and he's very loyal.

THE MUMMY'S HAND can be felt via the DVD collection The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, which can be purchased on Amazon.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Synopsis: Two grave-robbers enter the family crypt of the wealthy Talbot family, looking for an expensive watch and ring left on the body of young Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the titular Wolf Man. As the full Moon peeks through the windows, the thieves are puzzled to find Talbot's body covered with wolfs-bane. They clear it off and begin searching for the ring. Suddenly, a hand reaches up from the coffin to grab one of the unfortunate thieves....

Later, a Cardiff policeman finds a man lying unconscious on the street in the dead of night, the apparent victim of an assault. At the hospital the next day, Dr. Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles) is shocked to discover that his patient -- on whom he had just operated hours earlier -- is now conscious and talking. The man says he is Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr) and does not know how he came to be in Cardiff. Checking Talbot's story, the police discover that Lawrence died four years earlier. That night, the full Moon rises over the hospital, and Lawrence changes into a werewolf. He takes to the streets of Cardiff, attacking a policeman. The next morning, Talbot declares that he committed a murder during the night and asks for the police. Thinking the man has lost his marbles, Dr. Mannering has him put in a straitjacket. He then goes with the local chief of police to the Talbot family crypt, trying to determine if the man in his hospital room is really Talbot; sure enough, they find the coffin empty. When he returns to Cardiff he finds that Talbot has somehow shredded the straitjacket with his teeth and escaped.

After a long search Talbot finally catches up with the Gypsy camp of Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). Talbot knows that death is the only way he can be free of the curse, but Maleva tells him the only chance he has to die is to visit the guy who has harnessed the powers of life and death: the notorious Dr. Frankenstein. The two travel by horse-drawn wagon to Vasaria, the hometown of Dr. Frankenstein. Disappointed to find that Dr. Frankenstein is long dead, Talbot and Maleva decide to look around the ruins of the castle in hopes of finding Dr. Frankenstein's diary, which purportedly holds "the secrets of life and death".

Alas, a full Moon rises (again), Talbot turns into the Wolf Man (again), wreaks a good deal of havoc, falls through an opening near the castle and awakens (as Talbot again) in an icy underground chamber adjacent to the castle, where he finds Frankenstein's monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen like a TV dinner....

Comments: We last saw Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man back on December 13, and seeing it again I was struck by what a polished, economical little movie it is. It's usually lumped in with the monster rallies House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. But it more closely resembles the Frankenstein sequels we've watched in recent weeks -- Ghost of Frankenstein in particular.

We've previously kicked around the idea that Ludwig in Ghost of Frankenstein was the sensible kid in the family -- seen by his family as a slacker because he didn't want to possess god-like power. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man the slacker in question is young Elsa Frankenstein. She clearly feels nothing but shame for her family's transgressions against nature. But because she is not trained as a scientist, there is nothing she can do about it*.

Nothing, that is, until she meets Frank Mannering, a doctor who not only understands Henry Frankenstein's notes, but who also understands the moral arguments for disassembling the monster.

A romance is clearly budding between Elsa and Frank, but when Elsa discovers Frank is trying to juice the monster up rather than destroy it, the look of betrayal in her eyes is palpable. Conned again, our Elsa -- she thought she'd found someone who could help her to atone for her family's crimes, and look where it got her. Grandpa would have loved this guy.

At the end of the movie she allows herself to be wrapped up in Frank's brawny arms and led away from the ruined castle (amusingly, the same castle gets destroyed at the end of every picture) and what we are left with is a woman who has resigned herself to yet another abusive relationship.

The lovely Ilona Massey plays Elsa, and I had no trouble buying that she is a baroness. Massey did very little film work outside of this picture, and that's a shame; I would have loved to see what sort of range she had as an actress.

It's great to see Maria Ouspenskaya classing up the joint as Maleva, but I still have not forgiven Patric Knowles for The Strange Case of Dr. RX. The less said about Bela Lugosi in this one, the better.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN can be purchased on DVD (in a disc that also includes House of Frankenstein) through Amazon now has an on-demand option as well -- you can rent the movie for 24 hours for $2.99, and purchase for $9.99.


*Elsa is identified as the granddaughter of Henry Frankenstein, and the daughter of another monster-building member of the family. I'm guessing she is Ludwig's daughter, since she mentions growing up in Vasaria.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday, August 22, 1970: Dracula (1931) / The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932)


Synopsis: Renfield (Dwight Frye), a young attorney from London, arrives at a small Carpathian village. His fellow travelers are staying in the village overnight but he insists on continuing on to the castle of a local nobleman, Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi).

The villagers turn pale at the very mention of the name, and beg him not to go. But Renfield is there on business, and insists on completing his journey.

After an unnerving trip to the castle, Renfield finally meets the count, who signs documents to complete his purchase of Carfax Abbey in England. It is to England, Dracula says, that he will go the very next morning.

Later, a ship drifts into an English harbor, all aboard her dead -- save for Renfield, who is now a stark, raving lunatic.

Several crates from the ship are delivered to Carfax Abbey. From one of them emerges Count Dracula, who soon insinuates himself into London society, befriending Dr. Seward, owner of the Seward Asylum where Renfield is confined. The asylum is, we learn, next door to Carfax Abbey. Dracula meets Dr. Seward's daughter, Mina (Helen Chandler); her fiancee Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and their friend Lucy (Frances Dade).

Meanwhile, a string of bizarre murders has caught the interest of Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), an unorthodox scientist and student of the occult. Two small puncture wounds, he finds, were on the necks of each victim, including young Lucy.

When Mina relates a dream of a man coming into her bedroom and biting her neck, Seward is surprised to see that Mina has been hiding two small puncture wounds herself. But Van Helsing is not surprised. He insists that a vampire is attempting to make Mina its slave by visiting her over a series of subsequent nights.

Mina can only be protected, he says, by locking her in her room, and sealing the windows with wolfbane and crucifixes, which vampires find repellent.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula pays a visit to the Seward home, and Van Helsing quickly realizes that Dracula himself is the vampire they seek. A battle of wits ensues, with Van Helsing battling Count Dracula for Mina's very soul....

Comments: Last week marked Horror Incorporated's first journey into the realm of the double feature. This week we have the first movie to be broadcast a second time. Or the show's first journey into the realm of the rerun, if you want to be that way about it.

So we get a second look at Todd Browning's 1931 masterpiece. I talked about the film itself when it was first broadcast in November, but as long as we are revisiting it, perhaps we should take a moment to talk about the film's music.

Dracula, famously, doesn't have a music score. In the early days of talkies it was widely believed that a score would distract and confuse audiences, since they wouldn't be able to tell if the music they were hearing was supposed to be ambient sound. So Dracula only has two music cues: we hear a bit of Swan Lake during the opening credits, and some ambient music from the opera that Dracula attends.

(That cue from Swan Lake, by the way, was used in a lot of these Universal Pictures from the early 1930s. In fact we hear it over the credits of tonight's second feature, The Murders In the Rue Morgue).

In 2000 composer Philip Glass wrote a complete score for Dracula, which was recorded by the Kronos Quartet. I was lucky enough to see a screening of the film with a live performance of the new music. It was an interesting experience; while I'd seen the movie a number of times, I'd never seen it with a score or with an audience.

Ironically enough, I found Glass' cues to be rather intrusive and distracting, though I had no complaint about the music itself. Seeing it with an audience, though, was a terrific experience. I suspect many of the people at Northrop Auditorium had never seen the movie before; or, at least, hadn't seen it for a very long time.

The audience was pretty good-natured, but poor old Bela Lugosi's stagey mannerisms came in for some derisive laughter and snickering. The biggest laugh of the night came from the rubber bat appearing outside the window of the Seward house, clearly jouncing up and down on the end of a wire. And I'm willing to bet that there was not a single member of the audience who found a single moment of the movie frightening.

When I get my time machine finished, I'll be sure to stop off in 1931 and see Dracula in a movie theater there (I'll try to find one of the lavish movie palaces of the era; I've always wanted to visit one). Seeing it with a less-jaded audience, I figure, will be a wholly different experience. Apparently, it was considered quite horrifying in those days.

Watching these old movies on television diminishes their impact somewhat, but I still like to think that watching them late at night, with the wind howling outside and the rain pelting against the windows, is as atmospheric as anything you'd experience in the theater. So the broadcast TV era afforded a different experience from the cinematic era, though -- at times -- it could be a deliciously spooky one.

Dracula can be found on the Universal DVD set Dracula: The Legacy Collection. But you may also want to check out the first digitally restored DVD release, which included the new Philip Glass score. You can find it here.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue

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: The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are justifiably famous, but they tend to be long on atmosphere and short on plot. For this reason, films based upon them take plenty of liberties. We’ve already seen what Hollywood did with The Raven and The Black Cat; and tonight we get to see what they make of “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”.

Like a lot of adaptations this one comes off better if you’ve never read the story it’s based upon. Understandably, a lot of changes had to be made in translation. But this adaptation is particularly distressing because it throws out everything that made the short story interesting and memorable.

That story – widely credited as the first detective tale – was published in 1841. It describes how a brilliant, penniless young man named C. Auguste Dupin solves a sensational double homicide that has baffled the Paris police department. The circumstances surrounding the murders are what we would describe today as a classic “locked-room” mystery: two women are found dead in their home, one nearly decapitated and the other beaten and strangled, her body pushed up the chimney by an enormously strong assailant. The door is locked from the inside, and the only windows the killer could have escaped from are nailed shut, also from the inside.

Dupin solves the mystery simply by applying his keen, disciplined mind to the problem, identifying and rejecting irrelevant clues and logically working his way through the facts until he arrives at the correct solution. That an amateur easily, almost effortlessly, solves this “insoluble” mystery is one thing. That he does so basically as a lark is quite another, and it makes C. August Dupin one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in literature.

But for the screen adaptation, the writers felt it was necessary to dismantle the elaborate puzzle-box that Poe had constructed and sand down the rough edges from their protagonist. Camille L’Espanayle is no longer one of the two murder victims. She has been pulled from the chimney, brought back to life, and transformed into Dupin’s girlfriend. Dupin (inexplicably renamed Pierre) is now a poor medical student, rather than an eccentric bohemian.

And the screenwriters, needing an antagonist, dreamed up a character named Dr. Mirakle, played with scenery-chewing zest by Bela Lugosi, an actor who was still basking in the success of the previous year's Dracula. Mirakle's motivations are shaky throughout -- he seems to find Camille herself alluring, yet also wants her blood for his experiments proving human-ape kinship. This all figures (or is supposed to figure, somehow) into his theories of evolution. That Darwin's On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859 is apparently ignored. And why not? Mirakle's motive doesn't make sense anyway.

Lugosi is at least amusing as Dr. Mirakle; the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the other principles. Leon Waycoff's Dupin is an insufferable and ineffectual dullard, only a pale shadow of Poe's creation. Diminutive leading lady Sidney Fox is certainly cute, but sweetness seems to be the only quality she can project.

As for Erik the gorilla, we get a man in a suit for the distant shots, and a chimpanzee for the close-ups. Movie audiences in 1932 were apparently much more forgiving in those days.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue can be found on the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection. It's available on Amazon.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Saturday, August 15, 1970: The Mummy (1932) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

The Mummy

Synopsis: On a 1921 expedition to Egypt, archeologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron) and his team have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a mummified body, and near it a small ornate casket. Expert on the occult Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) notes that the mummy did not have its internal organs removed before burial, as was customary in ancient Egypt; furthermore, hieroglyphs on the inside of the sarcophagus that were meant to ensure life after death had been chiseled off. From this Muller deduces that their subject had been buried alive as punishment for some act of sacrilege.

From an inscription upon the casket, the archeologists learn that it contains the legendary Scroll of Thoth. This is the scroll that Isis was said to have used to raise Osiris from the dead, and it bears a warning: any who dare to read it will fall prey to a horrible curse. Whemple and his assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) are eager to proceed, but Muller warns them not to. As Muller and Whemple discuss the matter outside, Norton opens the scroll and begins to read aloud. The mummy comes to life, takes the scroll from a now-hysterical Norton, and disappears into the night.

Ten years later, Whemple's son Frank (David Manners) is taking part in another Egyptian expedition. This one meets with little success until a mysterious Egyptian named Ardeth Bey (Boris Karloff) appears at the site, offering to show the men the way to the lost tomb of Princess Ankes-en-Amon.

The archeologists are skeptical, but astonished when it turns out that Ardeth Bey was right -- the tomb, undisturbed for 3,700 years, is precisely where the Egyptian said it would be.

Later, the contents of Ankes-en-Amon's tomb are on display in the Cairo museum, and Ardeth Bey returns -- this time staring, hour after hour, at the mummified body of the princess herself. After the museum closes, he kneels beside the mummy's display case. Reading from the Scroll of Thoth, he attempts to raise Ankes-en-Amon from the dead. He does not succeed, but without intending it, his incantations have an effect on a family friend of Dr. Muller, the young half-Egyptian Helen Grovener (Zita Johann). Helen is strangely drawn to the Cairo Museum. Soon it becomes clear that Helen carries the reincarnated spirit of Ankes-en-Amon, the woman for whom Ardeth Bey suffered unspeakable torment 37 centuries earlier. When Ardeth Bey realizes this, he becomes determined to revive the memories Helen carries of her past lives, and thus reclaim a love that death itself could not extinguish....

Comments: Horror Incorporated inaugurates its double-feature format in grand style tonight, with one of the great films of the Universal horror canon.

Most Hollywood films are quickly forgotten, but like its titular character The Mummy has endured the ravages of time and the changes in fashion, and comes away looking pretty good. It is still being watched and appreciated 80 years after its release.

And deservedly so. This is a movie that features a tense, intelligent script, a great performance by Boris Karloff, and a superb German-expressionist look courtesy of director Karl Freund.

The Mummy isn't what most people think of as a standard-issue mummy movie. There are no scenes of a man wrapped in bandages chasing people around. Rather, this first foray into mummy lore essentially retells the story of Dracula: a powerful undead creature tries to ensnare an innocent woman's soul, but is foiled by a modern expert in the occult. In both films David Manners plays the young woman's love interest; and in both films Edward Van Sloan plays the paranormal expert.

These coincidences weren't intentional, or at least not at first; there was no hint of them in the early drafts of the script (which was then titled Cagliostro) by Nina Wilcox Putnam and Richard Schayer. It wasn't until John Balderston was brought in to rework the story that the elements from Dracula were introduced, and little wonder -- Balderston had previously adapted Dracula for the screen, from a stage play by Garett Fort.

In spite of the similarities in story, the movie never comes across as a Dracula knock-off. Willy Pogany designed some stunning Egyptian sets for the film, and the Jack Pierce makeup for Boris Karloff is remarkable. Freund's careful choices in camera and lighting lend a brooding atmosphere that prevents the stagebound feel to which Browning's film eventually succumbed.

Zita Johann and Edward Van Sloan bring enormous credibility to their respective roles. Johann is particularly effective in her final scene, when she has finally recalled her past life as Ankes-en-Amon, and implores the goddess Isis to free her from Ardeth Bey's grotesque obession.

But it is Boris Karloff's performance as the sinister Ardeth Bey that really makes this movie go. Karloff manages to imbue his character with both an air of physical frailty and psychological menace.

In the early 1930s Carl Lamaelle, Sr. worried that the horror pictures were tasteless fare, and not the sort of thing that Universal Studios should dabble in. But he couldn't argue with the money these movies brought in. Nevertheless it is to Lamaelle's credit, and Universal's, that the studios' horror output wasn't dreck thrown out for shock value. In the main, these were solidly-crafted pictures, and sometimes -- as on this occasion -- they were great ones as well.

THE MUMMY is part of the DVD set The Mummy: The Legacy Collection, and is available through

The Face Behind the Mask

Synopsis: Immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He's a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O'Hara (Don Beddoe). O'Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can't get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.

Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky's gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go....

Comments: The Face Behind the Mask is a bit like the character of Janos Szoba himself: earnest, eager, willing to work hard, and grateful for any good will that comes its way. Its biggest flaw is that it can't make up its mind -- we're never sure just what sort of movie this is supposed to be. Noirish thriller? Weepy melodrama? Shakespearian tragedy?

Or is it a message film, advocating an end to restrictive immigration laws? It seems that way, at least at first. Title cards suggest that the film is set before passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which had imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants from various countries. The quotas were designed to limit the number of Jews, Italians, eastern Europeans, and other "undesirable" elements entering the U.S.

More likely, though, the titles served as an acknowledgement of current events in 1941, namely the plight of European immigrants desperate to escape the predations of the Nazis. In that light the happy-go-lucky Janos might have come across as a bit frivolous.

In the film's first scene Janos bubbles over with enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming an American. "She is beautiful!" he cries, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, as a few notes of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" creep into the soundtrack. He is eager to learn English, eager to work any job, eager to become, in Craig Ferguson's words, an "American on purpose". To modern audiences this is decidedly corny stuff, but the movie's heart is in the right place, upended only by the jarring shifts in tone.

While an inspiring immigrant's tale might include a tragic setback -- such as disfigurement in a fire -- as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome, success as an underworld kingpin is probably not what most people think of as living the American dream.

The Man Behind the Mask is nevertheless a near-perfect showcase for the talents of Peter Lorre, who handles the transition from naive immigrant to embittered vagrant to, finally, criminal mastermind with such skill that we are able to overlook the improbable turns in the screenplay and just enjoy the ride.

Strong performances help the movie rise above the uncertainty of the script. George E. Stone as Dinky and Evelyn Keyes as Helen both add a great deal to the proceedings.

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK is available through Sinister Cinema.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday, August 8, 1970: The Ghost of Frankenstein (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: The Ghost of Frankenstein a pretty solid variant on the Frankenstein formula, offering little that's new in terms of story, but staking out some interesting motivations for Ludwig, our latest monster-building contestant.

In the original Frankenstein, Henry was driven by a grotesque desire to become god-like, to create life out of inert material. In Bride of Frankenstein, he is still tempted by that power, but ultimately chickens out on Dr. Pretorius' even wackier ambitions. Ultimately it's fear of the Monster's wrath that compels him to assemble the Bride.

Wolf in Son of Frankenstein believes that he must rebuild the Monster in order to vindicate the work of his father and redeem his reputation with the people of Frankenstein. Wolf saw his job as to prove the Monster's value to the superstitious yokels.

But in The Ghost of Frankenstein it is clear immediately that Ludwig isn't at all like the others. He has no interest in his family's monster-building activities, and he knows the fate that would befall him if he had (Henry, we learn, is long dead, while Wolf has fled the country in disgrace*).

Ludwig is a man who doesn't need to prove anything; and more importantly, he seems to be the most mentally healthy Frankenstein we've ever met. Given the opportunity to restore the Monster to its full health, Ludwig has a better idea: drain its energy away, remove its internal organs and disassemble it, piece by piece.

So in the end the whole plot turns on a very simple question: why does Ludwig change his mind?

Having presented Ludwig as a sane and sensible fellow clearly created a dilemma for the screenwriters. Ludwig isn't going to be tipped over the edge into a monster-building frenzy by an appeal to his vanity or the lure of vindicating the family name. So now a very odd (albeit very old) plot device is introduced: he is visited by the ghost of his father (played by Hardwicke himself) who lays a guilt trip on his son, essentially asking "how could you do this to me?" And Ludwig, against all common sense, gives in to it.

Why this should work on the rational Ludwig -- besides that fact that it's convenient to the plot -- is an interesting question. So let's put ourselves in Ludwig's shoes for a moment. He grew up in the shadow of a father who was domineering , brilliant, and insane. He was overshadowed, too, by the haughty golden child Wolf, who won his father's approval by sharing in his dreams of personal glory and power.

Ludwig was no less ambitious, but his dreams were altogether healthier. He wanted to use his talents to help the human race, to heal the sick minds that he saw all around him going without treatment. And without knowing it, the mind he most wanted to heal was the one that forever lay beyond his reach -- that of his father. So now, hearing his father pleading his case from beyond the grave, Ludwig gets sucked into the biggest rescue fantasy of all time. And like any good child attempting to help a parent who is beyond help, he is on a trajectory toward spectacular failure. That's the kind of failure that Frankenstein movies are all about.

We last saw Sir Cedric Hardwicke on April 25th when he played the conniving cousin in The Invisible Man Returns. He was an enormous asset to that cast, and he is just as valuable here. He is working without the presence of Boris Karloff, and for the first time the role of the monster has devolved to another actor -- in this case Lon Chaney, Jr.

Chaney is lugubrious and forgettable, more of a prop than an actor, but far worse actors would eventually don the big shoes and the flat-top headpiece.

One of those actors would be Bela Lugosi, who was brought back as the amusing Ygor. Somehow Lugosi seems livelier and more interesting in this role than almost any other he's associated with.

The cast list mentions someone named Evelyn Ankers, but I'm afraid I don't remember a thing about her performance.
*For the record, there is no evidence of this disgrace at the end of Son of Frankenstein. In that film, Wolf has destroyed the monster and gunned down Ygor (who has now officially survived a hanging and three .45 slugs at point-blank range, and I'm starting to think he's more durable than the Monster). Wolf deeds the castle and land to the people of the village, and bids them a cheerful farewell at the train station. It is a bright sunny morning, in stark contrast to the rainy, dismal night he arrived. The whole village sees him off, hailing the name of Frankenstein at last. It's safe to say this revisionist history was easier to pull off in the days before TV and home video, when audiences would only vaguely remember the ending from the previous picture, if they remembered it at all.