Monday, August 22, 2011

Saturday, January 30, 1971: The Black Cat (1934) / House of Horrors (1946)

Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan's beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.
At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.

Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the futuristic house built on the ruins of the old fortress.

This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world's greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast's visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast's wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast's daughter as his own.

Wedegast treats Joan's injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night's sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Werdegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.

Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before -- more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.

Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.

Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his "childish" and "melodramatic" impulses. Realizing that this isn't yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.

Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin -- she is, in fact, Werdegast's long-lost daughter....

Comments: Tonight we are treated to a top-notch double feature -- the best, in fact, that Horror Incorporated has offered to date. First up is Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat, a florid and highly stylized thriller that makes great use of its two stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. From the very beginning, the movie is out to buck convention. It is a horror film set not in a crumbling castle but in a gleaming modernist house; while most films of the era had almost no music, this one has few moments without it; and while most horror films of this type were set in the distant past, this one is set in modern times, with a revenge subplot rising from the blood-soaked battlefields of the Great War.

The mood it creates is very effective, and while modern viewers are likely to see it as tame stuff, in its day it was seen as having an unsavory focus on torture and cruelty. "Clammy and excessively ghoulish," complained the New York Times when the film premiered in May of 1934. "'The Black Cat' is more foolish than horrible. The story and dialogue pile the agony on too thick to give the audience a reasonable scare." Time Magazine groused, " A dismal hocus-pocus which seems to confuse its actors as much as it fails to frighten its audience.....cinema's two outstanding blood-curdlers deserve a better vehicle than The Black Cat".

Variety, as you might expect, had the funniest take on the movie, writing "Clash of the two eyebrow-squinting nuts involves an American bridal couple temporarily caught in the manor. It is the playful notion of nasty Karloff to make the bride Exhibit A in a devil cult of which he is the head, and it is the revenge of Lugosi to torture his enemy by skinning him alive". Ah, good times.

As often happens, audiences ignored the wisdom of the film critics, and The Black Cat was a hit at the box office. It's regarded as a classic of the horror genre, and rightly so -- not only does it successfully create an atmosphere of wonder and foreboding, it successfully captures the spirit of Poe even as it entirely discards the story it's ostensibly based upon. Heavy on mood and imagery and short on plot, this is the sort of film I can imagine Poe falling in love with, going to see again and again.

I like to think that Poe would have been a great fan of the movies. He was just born a hundred years too late.

House of Horrors

: A spectacularly unsuccessful sculptor named Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck) is dining on bread and cheese by candlelight. It's bread and cheese because he doesn't have anything else to eat; and it's by candlelight because the electricity in his loft has been shut off. But he is in good spirits because a wealthy patron of the arts is coming over soon to buy his latest creation for $1,000.

But when the patron arrives, he is accompanied by a supercilious art critic named F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier) who insults the work and implores the buyer not to go through with it. The sale is ruined.

Despondent, De Lange walks down to the river bridge. He is about to throw himself in when he sees a half-drowned man surface near the riverbank. He goes down to help the large, ungainly fellow out of the water, and returns to the loft, where he nurses him back to health.

He sees this man as "the perfect Neanderthal" and is inspired to create a new sculpture of his primitive cranium. It turns out that the stranger is an escaped murderer called The Creeper (Rondo Hatton), and his m.o. is to snap his victim's spines. The police believe he is dead, and at first it isn't clear to De Lange what sort of man he's taken into his home.

But it becomes clear soon enough: The Creeper murders a streetwalker in the neighborhood (because "she screamed", as the Creeper succinctly explains), and when De Lange angrily reads Harmon's snarky write-up of his foiled sale, The Creeper gets up and leaves.

Meanwhile, reporter Joan Medford (Virginia Grey) visits her colleague F. Holmes Harmon. She is upset that Harmon plans to write a savage review of her boyfriend Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) and his planned exhibit of commercial illustrations (pinups, which appear to be Morrow's speciality). Harmon finds pop art in general to be contemptible, and Morrow's work particularly vulgar; he is determined to ruin Morrow with another poison-pen letter to the art world.

Enter the Creeper. He kills Harmon and slips away. Because Harmon was working on a hit piece against Morrow when he died, police suspicion falls on him.

De Lange realizes that all he need do is express contempt for an art critic -- or anyone, really -- and hey presto, he reads that person's obituary in the next day's paper. Bringing the Creeper into his life has given him an incredible feeling of power, and if that weren't enough, his sculpture of the Creeper is going well -- in fact, we suspect it's the first decent piece of art he's ever created.

As the body count rises, Medford visits De Lange's loft. She says she is looking for a story for her Sunday column -- but is she? Why does she steal a sketch of the Creeper that De Lange has hidden? And what will happen to her when he --and the Creeper -- find out?

Comments: It's hard to imagine a more interesting counterpoint to The Black Cat than Jean Yarbrough's House of Horrors, coming as it does from the end rather than the beginning of Universal's "golden age of horror". Ulmer's film benefited from lavish production values, a tone borrowed from the German expressionist films of the 1920s and the presence of Karloff and Lugosi, two actors then at the peak of their careers. House of Horrors had no stars, and was shot in the most straightforward and pedestrian way possible, and its overall look and feel suggests the lowest of low-budget Universal features of the time.

And yet House of Horrors is in its way just as lurid and disturbing as the better-known Ulmer classic.

Perhaps this is due to the presence of Rondo Hatton himself, whose acromegaly is displayed for the paying audience in a way that reminds us too keenly that all horror films are freak shows in sanitized packages: we're separated from the grotesques by a glowing screen, but all the same we lay down our money and can't stop gawking. And perhaps part is due to the fact that the Creeper, casually presented to us as the logical successor to Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, isn't anything like them. The Creeper claims no supernatural origin, nor does he have any claim to our sympathy.

Sympathy is what we must feel for the great screen monsters, sooner or later; they have become what they are through no fault of their own, and we can imagine a time when these creatures were like us.

We should have no such illusions about the Creeper. It's difficult to imagine a time when he wasn't a remorseless killer.

In his place we have Marcel DeLange, a talent-free sculptor whose failures and humiliations have led him to the brink of suicide. The Creeper arrives just in time to give him a reason to carry on -- providing him not only with an artistic muse, but with a vehicle for revenge. The moral choice in this film is assumed entirely by DeLange, and he does not hesitate: his rage and bitterness, strong as they were, were never stronger than his moral cowardice. But the Creeper gives him a way to exact revenge, and DeLange clearly believes that he needn't pay the moral price because he never explicitly asks the Creeper to commit murder -- he simply wishes openly for the death of someone in the presence of the Creeper, and the deed is as good as done. He's off the hook!

But DeLange is wrong. He is on the hook, all the way on, and the moral price always gets paid. We know this because we're watching a horror film, and horror films have rules, but DeLange is unaware of the rules.

DeLange's ignorance, of course, his greatest liability -- just as Werdegast and Poelzig's greatest liability is their too-great knowledge of the moral precipice they have reached. Werdegast and Poelzig had each clearly made a decision - long before the events of the movie began - that when the time came he would take the other guy with him. That's great dramatic stuff, but for House of Horrors it never occurs to either character to take the other guy with him. Not until it's too late.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Saturday, January 23, 1971: House of Frankenstein (1946) / The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: In Neustadt prison, mad scientist Dr. Niemann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel are unexpectedly freed when a wall of their cell collapses during a violent thunderstorm. The two happen upon Lampini's traveling horror show, which boasts as its main attraction the skeleton of Count Dracula. Neimann and Eric quickly murder Lampini and his driver and take their places. Niemann has been obsessed with proving the genius of Dr. Frankenstein and he sets out to the village where the Monster was created.

Niemann discovers that the skeleton of Dracula is authentic when he removes the stake that had been thrust through the vampire's heart. The skeleton promptly transforms into the Count. Threatening to replace the stake if Dracula doesn't do his bidding, Niemann sends the vampire out to kill the three men who had him imprisoned: Strauss, Ullman and Hussman. Dracula kills Hussman but dies before he can dispense with the hated Strauss and Ullman.

Reaching the village of Vasaria, they encounter a band of gypsies. Seeing a gypsy woman Ilonka being abused, Daniel saves her and, smitten with her, asks her to join them.

Later, examining the ruins of Frankenstein Castle, Neimann and Daniel discover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. Niemann realizes that the Monster can be revived, and he plans to place the Monster's brain in Lawrence Talbot's body; Talbot's brain in Strauss' body, and Ullman's brain in the Monster's body. But discovering that the Ilonka has fallen in love with Lawrence Talbot, Daniel wants his own brain placed into Talbot's body....

Comments: Almost exactly thirty minutes after House of Frankenstein begins, the movie abruptly ends.

Well, sort of. Dr. Niemann and his assistant Daniel realize that the authorities who are pursuing them don't really want Lampini's carriage, which they've stolen. Nope, they are after Count Dracula, whom Niemann has sworn to protect. So Niemann jettisons Dracula and his coffin from the carriage. The count is caught out in the open, and can't climb inside his downed coffin quickly enough (morning comes quickly in the Carpathian mountains, you know) and he is destroyed by sunlight.

At that moment, Dracula's ring falls off the finger of young Rita Hussman, and she and her husband hold each other close and stare off into the distance together. The music swells, we see a shot of Lampini's carriage winding away into the distance, and we fade to black.

A moment later we fade in to find Lampini's carriage rolling along toward that hard-luck village of Vasaria. It is here that we'll meet the gypsy girl Ilonka and return again to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein. But it is this first, false ending that gives us the strange feeling that we're seeing a "compilation film", that is, a film cobbled together from episodes of an old TV series.

It would have been amusing if that were true -- a movie assembled, Frankenstein-style, from the corpses of other movies.

Truth is, House of Frankenstein would have made a pretty interesting TV series - each week Niemann and Daniel would travel to a different Carpathian village, meeting up with a new monster every week. Niemann, besides wanting revenge on Ullman, Hussman and Strauss, would always be looking for an opportunity to replicate Dr. Frankenstein's research; meanwhile, Daniel wants love, and / or a new body. Each week they would come thiiiis close to success but it would always elude them. Sort of Wagon Train meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

I would have made one hell of a TV executive.

Unfortunately, it's supposed to be a movie, no matter how much my mind keeps trying to twist it into a TV show. So we have to judge it on that basis, and on that basis it doesn't work very well. I generally dislike the Universal monster rallies, and this one is probably the most disagreeable of them all.

The Invisible Man Returns

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.
Geoffrey's cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey's fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb's last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin's visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family's coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother's work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners's dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug -- knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane....

Comments: The Invisible Man Returns is so much better than House of Frankenstein that I spent some time wondering why it turned up as the second feature on Horror Incorporated, and not the first.

It seems pretty obvious that, on a creature feature, you want to present your best picture first, because your peak audience will be with you at the start of the show, slowly draining away as the night wears on.

Of course when these movies were first released in theaters, the opposite was true: the less desirable "B" picture was seen first, forcing the audience to stick around for the "A" picture at the end.

This had been the rule since the dawn of the talkies and it continued until 1948, when two earthshaking events conspired to end the era of the theatrical double bill.

The first was the landmark Supreme Court decision United States V. Paramount Pictures, which essentially decided that the vertically-integrated movie industry held too much control over its distribution channels. Direct studio ownership of theater chains was outlawed as a result, and so was "block booking" -- the practice of forcing theaters to book a movie they didn't want in order to get a movie they did. Block booking was not only how most "B" pictures got into theaters, it was to a large extent their raison d'etre. United States V. Paramount was also designed to prevent studios from discriminating against independently-owned cinemas.

Of course, the decision didn't do much to solve the problems the Court thought it was solving at the time (today, block booking still happens, though not as blatantly as it once did; theaters are owned by giant chains that are all in bed with the studios; and independent cinemas are still discriminated against by the studios). But the decision was at least partially responsible for the unraveling of the vertically-integrated studio system.

I say partially because the second earthshaking event was happening right around the same time. This, of course, was the advent of television. After decades of experimentation, a national technological standard for TV broadcasts was established in 1941. World War II froze the planned rollout of television and it wasn't until 1947 that sets were being manufactured and purchased in significant numbers.

The existence of this giant new entertainment pipeline forced the film industry to become more efficient; double bills were one of the first casualties (for the next couple of decades, some small producers like AIP were able to continue offering double features for distribution, but only because they could make two movies for a lower price than the major studios could make one.

Which brings us right around again to the late 1950s, the Shock! package and the advent of the late night creature feature.

The Invisible Man Returns stands up very well today; this is partly due to the intelligent, suspenseful script, and partly due to an extraordinarily talented cast and the sure hand of veteran director Joe May, a grouchy German expat who gave Fritz Lang his start in the business. May wasn't well-liked by the casts he worked with, but you can't argue with his results -- this is a great little film.