Sunday, May 29, 2011

Saturday, October 3, 1970: Dracula (1931) / She Wolf of London (1946)


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: Dracula was the first movie to be broadcast twice on Horror Incorporated, and tonight it becomes the first to be broadcast three times.

You may remember that Horror Incorporated first aired this movie the night of its premiere on November 8, 1969. We saw it again on August 22. Having it pop up again, for the third time in a single year, makes me wonder if we're getting too much of a good thing.

And it raises a question that I've been asked a few times since I started this project: how do we know for sure what was running on a particular date?

The short answer is: we can't be 100% certain. We're going by the broadcast schedules printed in the Minneapolis Tribune. And those of us who remember the olden days of newspaper TV schedules know that they were occasionally wrong.

But one advantage to having your show in the middle of the night was that it was harder to get pre-empted. Horror Incorporated wasn't about to get bumped by special programming -- for example, the American League playoffs, in which Minnesota was battling against the Baltimore Orioles for the pennant, interrupted a lot of programming on October 3, 1970.*

But Horror Incorporated was able to saunter on, oblivious to the mayhem farther up the program grid. So I'd say that if there was an error in the listing, it would be due to a mistake in the newspaper, not because the show was pre-empted due to an 11-inning ball game, or because the President suddenly got a yen to address the nation from the Oval Office.

Having said that, it's certainly not inconceivable that Dracula ran three times in one year.

Obviously, I'd prefer a back-up source of information -- videotape archives of the show, station memos or other documents referencing the movies on the schedule, etc.

I have been trying to obtain such documents, but let's face it: local, non-hosted late-night creature features were never seen as likely candidates for historic preservation. I'm sure much of what I am looking for was routinely tossed out by the station when it was no longer useful. But I will keep trying.

Anyway, I'm not complaining about seeing Dracula again. If you're going to see any movie three times in a year, it might as well be this one. It holds up surprisingly well on repeat viewing, though I would say that it is best in its first and final thirds, sagging somewhat in the talky second act.

Interestingly, Dr. Van Helsing stands as the perfect counterpoint to Bride of Frankenstein's Dr. Pretorious. Pretorious is an amoral scientist who turns to the occult in order to gain knowledge and abilities that science cannot offer; while Van Helsing is a deeply moral scientist who studies the occult in order to battle its evils. It's a pity the two characters didn't get a chance to face off in a movie of their own. It would have been interesting to see what each would have made of the other's curriculum vitae.

And just because you asked, here is the Castle Films version of Dracula -- pared down to within an inch of its unnatural life.


* In case you're curious, the heavily-favored Orioles swept the Twins in the best-of-five series, then went on to defeat the Cincinnati Reds four games to one in the World Series. In 1970 there were two divisions per league, so division winners had only one best-of-five series between them and the pennant.

She-Wolf of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments: In my previous write-up of She-Wolf of London I noted that the film was an amalgamation of two popular suspense pictures of the early 1940s: Cat People and Gaslight. On a second viewing, She-Wolf of London might best be described as Cat People's premise melded with Gaslight's ending. As in Cat People, Phyllis is worried about her impending marriage to Barry because she is convinced she turns into a vicious animal, as predicted by her family's curse. But, like Gaslight, it turns out that this is all a set-up, perpetrated by her closest confidante.

This isn't a bad idea, actually, but She-Wolf of London falls apart on execution, for three critical reasons.

The first, and most egregious, is the that the screenplay cheats the audience. When you promise a she-wolf (in the title, no less) you'd damn well better come up with a she-wolf, either literally (woman turns into ravenous wolf) or figuratively (woman is predatory in her behavior, demeanor or appetites).

I asked my friend Shakira to throw a video together demonstrating this second definition of she-wolfery, and she kindly agreed:

Second, the Allenby curse is repeatedly invoked, and evidence is given for us to believe it (the crazed way dogs react to Phyllis, for example); but once Aunt Martha is identified as the killer, everyone agrees that the Allenby curse was just a lot of superstitious nonsense. Some of Phyllis' evidence for the curse is explained away by Martha's actions (the muddy boots and blood-stained hands), but everything else is conveniently forgotten.

The third problem that undercuts She-Wolf of London is its dreadful cheapness. The C-list cast is clearly racing through the shooting schedule, and there is no time to build atmosphere, suspense, or even convincing English accents. A very young June Lockhart has neither the screen presence nor the acting chops to carry the movie effectively, and she isn't aided by the colorless studio contract players surrounding her. Martin Kosleck, who is always interesting to watch, has little more than a cameo here.

Castle Films, it should be noted, apparently didn't think She-Wolf of London warranted an 8-minute version. I can't say I'm surprised.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saturday, September 26, 1970: The Wolf Man (1941) / House of Dracula (1945)

The Wolf Man

Synopsis: Lawrence Talbot returns to the family estate after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades. He is welcomed back by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and talk quickly turns to Larry's elder brother, who was recently killed in a hunting accident. Now that he is the eldest, Lawrence is heir to the estate, as well as heir to his father's limited capacity for affection.

Lawrence has spent a good deal of time in California, and it shows: by the standards of his home town he is distressingly informal and decidedly frivolous, taking more interest in local shopgirl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) than in the more serious matters surrounding the family estate. Nevertheless Sir John is happy about the prodigal son's return, believing that Lawrence (or "Larry", as he has taken to calling himself) has spent enough time in the New World to benefit the stodgy old ways of Talbot Castle. Larry is certainly good with tools and machines; it's when he is working with modern contrivances that he seems happiest and most self-assured.

In an attempt to get on Gwen's good side, Larry purchases an unusual item from her family's shop: an ornate cane with a silver wolf's head. The wolf, we learn, is a potent and fearful symbol of the supernatural in these parts, as is the pentacle, which is also etched on the handle of the cane.

It turns out that Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews, a decent fellow; nevertheless, Gwen accompanies Larry to a Gypsy camp, where they hope to have their fortunes told. At the last minute, Gwen invites her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to join them.

Alas, poor Jenny! She really ought to have known better. As Gwen and Lawrence walk together under the light of the full Moon, Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi). What the fortune-teller sees in Jenny's future alarms him, and he urges Jenny to go home -- immediately. Terrified, Jenny runs away into the woods.

Almost immediately, Jenny is set upon by some sort of animal. Larry, hearing her screams, rushes to her aid, and attacks the creature with his cane. He manages to kill it, but not before it mauls his chest. Larry staggers away, collapsing only a few yards from Jenny's body.

Larry is taken home. The next morning he learns several disturbing facts: Jenny is dead, her throat ripped out. While a wolf clearly attacked her, no wolf carcass was found in the area; instead, the body of Bela the fortune-teller was found nearby, his head smashed in, presumably by Larry's cane. Moreover, Larry's chest shows no animal bites whatsoever.

Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could wounds on his chest be his imagination? And why wasn't Bela wearing his shoes?

That night, Larry Talbot undergoes a terrible transformation: he becomes a werewolf beneath the full Moon, and murders a gravedigger. The next morning, Larry confesses everything, but no one believes him.

No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva, whose own son suffered from the same curse....

Comments: Aside from introducing one of the great characters of the Universal horror pantheon, The Wolf Man offers something extra to devoted viewers of Horror Incorporated. The movie is simply loaded with actors we've seen again and again on the show. In addition to the ubiquitous Lon Chaney Jr, we also have Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Evelyn Ankers (The Frozen Ghost), Ralph Bellamy (The Man Who Lived Twice), Bela Lugosi (Dracula) , Patric Knowles (The Strange Case of Dr. RX) and Fay Helm (Night Monster).

Sometimes movies that are lauded as classics prove disappointing to the modern viewer, but not The Wolf Man. It is, quite simply, a ripping good story. Much of its power comes from an insistence that modern logic offer no protection against ancient fears.

From the very beginning Sir John Talbot is depicted as a progressive fellow, insisting that Lawrence's time in America can only benefit the locals. Throughout the movie, Sir John's confidence in modernity and rationality never wavers. Yet for all his soothing speeches, he is absolutely powerless to prevent the mayhem that is to come. In the end this rational man loses his own child to the same irrational force that took Maleva's. The only difference is that Maleva understands the ancient forces at work, and can at least make peace with them.

Curt Siodmak's brisk screenplay wisely makes Larry a proxy for the viewer: he has been away so long that he is essentially a stranger in his home town (though, if he grew up in the area, it's unlikely that he would be so ignorant of the werewolf lore everyone else seems to know by heart). Unlike the frosty Dr. Wilfred Glendon in Werewolf of London, Larry is depicted as a regular guy, someone who'd rather be buying a pretty girl a soda than peering through a microscope.

The screenplay rarely falters in making Larry a decent, likable fellow, but Siodmak arranges an unfortunate meet-cute between Larry and Gwen. Larry is setting up his father's telescope at Talbot Castle and, peering into the eyepiece, just happens (cough, cough) to see Gwen through her bedroom window; smitten, he goes to her shop and asks for the earrings he knows are on her nightstand. This was probably considered fun and light-hearted stuff in 1941 (hey, he wouldn't be spying on you with a telescope if he didn't like you), but today it makes Larry seem rather unsavory.

Of course, this might be a hint of what's to come, if you are willing to regard the werewolf as Larry's repressed id running amok; but the metaphor of hairy-wolfman-as-the-animal-we-carry-inside-us seems too shopworn and dreary to go into. So let's sidestep the issue and assume the telescope scene was meant to be innocent fun -- in an era when any women who said otherwise would be accused of being no fun at all.

This was probably Lon Chaney Jr's best performance, and the role seems to have been written with him in mind: Larry is good-natured, gentle in most circumstances, but capable of great anger when he feel he's been wronged. This plays greatly to Chaney's strengths as a soft-spoken but physically imposing actor. Similarly, Evelyn Ankers is not entirely forgettable here, as close to an acting triumph as she is likely to get.

Patric Knowles excelled at playing stuffed shirts named Frank, and he is perfectly serviceable here; but what Ralph Bellamy is doing as the local prosecutor, it isn't easy to say.

Maria Ouspenskaya is brilliant in her first film appearance as Maleva. She brings a somber dignity to her character, as she would later in the less-dignified Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

I've got a little treat for you -- the 8-minute Castle Films version of The Wolf Man. In the pre-home video days, Castle Films were the only way you could watch your favorite movies again, and they were cleverly boiled down to a single 8- or 16-mm reel. In many ways they were small masterpieces in their own right, cramming every plot point into an impossibly small container:

House of Dracula

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 talked about House of Dracula here, when it was first broadcast on Horror Incorporated; and in spite of my best efforts I couldn't muster a lot of enthusiasm while watching it again.

It's difficult today to imagine movies like House of Dracula being scary for audiences, even when they were running in theaters. Finding modern analogues for these movies isn't exact, but let's agree that Alien was creepy and quite scary, while Alien V. Predator was silly and derivative. Would it follow, then, that Alien is to Dracula as Alien Vs. Predator is to House of Dracula? It is tempting to think so. But to be sure I decided to go back and see what the self-appointed guardians of moral cleanliness thought about this movie. Take it away, Catholic Legion of Decency:

House of Dracula -- Murky monster tale of an idealistic doctor (Onslow Stevens) who cures the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) after killing the prowling Dracula (John Carradine), then discovers he's been contaminated by the vampire's blood and becomes one himself until reviving the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) for a fiery finale. Directed by Erle C. Kenton, the feverish plot is as unconvincing as the monsters, though the spooky visuals and eerie atmosphere offer some scary moments. Stylized violence, menacing situations and hokey moralizing. (A-II)

Now when the Legion of Decency accuses you of "hokey moralizing", you know you're in trouble.

The A-II rating, by the way, meant that it was only partially objectionable, and was acceptable fare for adults and adolescents. It was actually rare for the Legion to condemn a film outright; the studios were careful not to offend the Catholic lobby, and the Catholic censors was careful not to veer too far out from popular taste. The review suggests that the monster rallies of the mid-1940s were neither offensive nor particularly frightening.

And really, who is going to be scared of a horse-faced ham like John Carradine?

But the real question we should be asking is: Does House of Dracula entertain? Well, sure. It is a buck-toothed, lovable little movie. Perhaps I am less forgiving of it because its sudden lurch into pseudo-science was jarring (in the same way George Lucas' decision to come up with "mitochondria" as a scientific explanation for The Force was jarring). And after all, not counting a few Abbot and Costello appearances, this was the last roundup for the icons of Universal Horror. Too bad they couldn't go out with a bit more dignity.