Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday, February 13, 1971: Son of Frankenstein (1939) / The Invisible Man (1933)

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father's estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father's work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail.At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms.

Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father's "monster"; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots.
Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father's laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father's work by bringing the creature back to life...

Comments: It's our good fortune to have another top-notch double feature this week, starting off with 1939's Son of Frankenstein. This was the last film Basil Rathbone worked on before starring in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), which vaulted him permanently onto the Hollywood A-list. Up until this point Rathbone had been a splendid supporting player, cast most effectively in villainous roles (Tybalt in the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood), but he also excelled as fellows who were at least partially sympathetic -- Major Brand in The Dawn Patrol, and the French pirate Levasseur in Captain Blood.

But Rathbone was not seen as leading man material. In spite of his Shakespearean pedigree and obvious strengths as an actor he didn't project the same warmth as his contemporaries Errol Flynn and David Niven.

This would not matter when he donned the deerstalker cap and became for decades the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes in the public imagination. Holmes was always a difficult character to cast, or perhaps more accurately an easy character to miscast (Roger Moore, Frank Langella and Matt Frewer being only three of many actors to make idiots of themselves in the role). What makes Holmes such difficult territory is that he isn't a conventional hero and is strangely immune to screen adaptations that try to make him one. Over the years many filmmakers have tried to domesticate him: prettying him up, giving him a love life, making him warm and accessible. Those adaptations invariably fail. The only successful Holmes adaptations have kept him as both more -- and less -- than human*.

This is a big reason why Rathbone was so successful with the role. He couldn't do warm or romantic the way Niven and Flynn could, but those actors could not match the icy determination, the cerebral coolness, that Rathbone projected.

For the same reason he is perfect as Wolf. Frankenstein père was depicted as little more than a simpering neurotic, who loses all agency once the monster is created. We are happy to discover that Wolf is made of sterner stuff. Even when events spiral out of control he manages to keep his head, and he regains the upper hand in the end. And unlike his father or the sinister Pretorious, Wolf's intentions remain good. He is motivated primarily by his desire to erase the graffito found on Henry's casket: Maker of Monsters. And he wants to erase that sobriquet not just from the casket, but from the hearts of the people of Frankenstein, and from his own guilty conscience. His circumstances are outsized, but Henry's impulse -- to redeem the reputation of his father -- is almost Shakespearean in its ambition and in its ubiquity.

Wolf's also motivated by a surprisingly honest desire to expand the frontiers of knowledge. In reviewing the notes in the laboratory he realizes that his father did not fully understand the implications of the lightning that he was using to give life to the creature. In fact, Wolf concludes, it was cosmic rays, not lightning, that gives the monster its titanic strength and near invulnerability. At this point the monster ceases to be "just" an undead creature stitched together from corpses and reanimated with electricity. "He cannot die," says Ygor. "He lives for always". Accidental exposure to cosmic rays must have seemed a fairly novel explanation in 1939, but audiences would soon get used to it : by the 1950s radiation would be a one-stop shop for Universal's screenwriters. It could cause any problem and become every solution.

This is movie that wears quite well on repeated viewing. Bela Lugosi is simply delightful in this movie, and made me with Ygor had turned up in a few more of these pictures.

The Invisible Man

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment. Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley's underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white -- and drives them mad. Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.

Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head -- revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene. At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed. That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can't reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps's laboratory to work on a solution. But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn't imagining how can "make the world grovel" at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause...

Comments: Our second feature is another mad scientist picture, perhaps the best ever put to film. James Whale directed The Invisible Man two years after Frankenstein and two years before its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. The director's wry sense of humor is more in evidence here than it was in Frankenstein, particularly in Una O'Connor's periodic spasms of over-the-top shrieks and a wonderful scene where a disembodied pair of trousers skips merrily along a country lane.
But a good deal of credit for the film's success should go to Claude Rains, who successfully conveys the full range of Griffin's madness to the audience. Rains is often criticized for an over-ripe performance in this picture (with some justification) but when you consider how much of the movie relies solely on his voice, it's easier to understand why he makes the choices he does.
One of the best scenes in the film is when Griffin meets with Flora (played by the dreadful Gloria Stuart), and inside of a minute he caroms between affection, regret, contempt and outright megalomania. It's the sort of thing an actor can easily botch, but Rains sells it, allowing us to pity Griffin even as we despise the creature he has turned into. Like the H.G. Wells novella it's based upon, The Invisible Man has a somewhat unusual structure in that the closest thing we have to a protagonist is Griffin himself. Since he's also the antagonist, Rains has to make us root for him and against him at the same time. That's a very difficult job, but he pulls it off -- as the clip below will demonstrate.

Skip ahead to the 5:00 minute mark and try to imagine another actor in the role. Even covered head to toe Rains commands your attention. It's one of the best film performances of the 1930s.


*To any list of successful adaptations I'd include Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey, Jr. While the screenplay takes considerable liberties with its source material, the essentials of Holmes' character remain: he is a brilliant detective but something of a washout as a human being, and it isn't hard to figure out why he has exactly one friend.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Interlude: Jimmy Sangster, 1927 - 2011

Jimmy Sangster has always been one of my heroes, and I was saddened to hear of his recent passing.  I actually heard the news a few weeks late (he died on August 19) but that’s only appropriate, since I saw his films a bit late as well -- two or three decades after their release, in fact.

Sangster was by far the best screenwriter in the Hammer stable, with credits like  X the UnknownThe Horror of DraculaThe Curse of FrankensteinThe Crawling Eye and many others.  He wrote quickly.  His output was consistently good.  And he was an all-arounder, which is surprisingly rare in his profession. His scripts were well-plotted and suspenseful, his characters believable, his dialogue whip-smart.

In later years he turned to television, scripting episodes of Ironsides and Banecek and Movin’ On, giving even the most mediocre assignments far more than they deserved.  And unlike some television writers (I’m looking at you, Harlan Ellison) he never tried to make a show conform to his own sensibilities.  He was a master craftsman who knew exactly what the script required, and provided it.And when given the opportunity, as with "The Spanish Moss Murders" episode of  Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Sangster showed that he was still bubbling over with ideas.  He ran circles round the other guys, and he made it look easy.

When I grow up, I want to be Jimmy Sangster.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Saturday, February 6, 1971: Dracula (1931) / Night Monster (1942)

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, we learn, adjoins the grounds of 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: This is Horror Incorporated's fourth broadcast of Dracula in fifteen months, easily making it the program's most frequently-seen film. I've already written about it here and here, so for this go-round -- at reader kochillt's suggestion -- let's take a look at the Spanish-language version, filmed and released at the same time.

For many years, distributing Hollywood movies to foreign markets was easy. That's because films were silent. If you were shipping Safety Last! to Madrid or Rome or Budapest, you needed only to swap out the English inter-titles with ones translated into Spanish or Italian or Hungarian. But once the sound era began, things got messy.

Inter-titles weren't enough anymore, because stories were no longer 90% visual; now characters stood there and gassed on, scene after scene, for the whole length of the movie.

While the studios eventually settled on the idea of adding subtitles and dubbing in dialogue with foreign actors, in the early days of talkies it wasn't entirely clear what the best solution was. One thing the studios tried was lensing shot-for-shot remakes of the same film, using a foreign cast on the same sets.

And that's how we happen to have, essentially, two nearly identical versions of Dracula. The Spanish version, directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villerias as Dracula and Lupita Tovar as Mina, was filmed on the Dracula sets each night, after the English-language version had wrapped production for the day.

For years it's been fashionable to insist that the Spanish-language Dracula is superior to Tod Browning's English-language version.

And there are good reasons to think this. The Spanish version can claim more sophisticated camera work, and therefore doesn't seem quite as stagebound as Browning's movie. The Spanish version also contains about 20 minutes of material cut from the American version.

But the two Draculas, filmed on the same sets using the same script at the same time, must come down ultimately to their respective performances, and it is here that Browning's version wins out. Watching Carlos Villerias' performance really gives you an appreciation for Bela Lugosi's otherworldly portrayal. Villarias portrays Dracula in a relatively straightforward way. He presents the count as a charming, handsome stranger with a sinister agenda, and this is fine -- it is, in fact, exactly what the script calls for.
But it was Lugosi who did something more than what the script demanded, selling the Count as an embodiment of ancient evil, an entity that has spent so many centuries away from human society that even masquerading as human now requires a constant effort. And for all of the criticism of Lugosi's hamminess, Villerias is far worse: his portrayal is, quite simply, acting for the stage. He makes no adjustment for the demands of film, and his mannerisms are far too broad to be taken seriously.

The crucial role of Dr. Van Helsing is taken up by Eduardo Arozamena in this version, and while I have been critical of the stiffness of Edward Van Sloan's portrayal, I have to say that Van Sloan turns in the better performance as well. This is probably not the fault of Arozamena, who projects a warmth that Van Sloan does not. Rather, the problem is that warmth is a quality Van Helsing shouldn't possess. Van Helsing is an obsessive, a perpetual outsider, an expert in things most respectable people regard as nonsense. But Arozamena comes across like a gentle family physician.

In one critical scene, he overhears Mina (rebranded "Eva" in the Spanish-language version) relating a dream she had about a man entering her room and biting her neck. Van Helsing approaches her and asks when she had this dream. He then asks to see her neck. She refuses, and her father steps forward, gently undoing her wrap to reveal the bite marks on her throat.

In the English-language version, however, Van Helsing himself opens her wrap to reveal the bite marks even after Mina refuses. This is a small but critical difference, showing that Van Helsing isn't interested in Eva's embarrassment or concerned with her modesty. His only concern is hunting the vampire that is hunting her.

The third critical role is that of Renfield, and I must admit to liking Pablo Alvarez Rubio in the role, despite my great regard for Dwight Frye. And it isn't even because Rubio is better in the role -- I'm not certain that he is.

 We know that any actor playing Renfield is going to go over the top -- the role begs for it -- but Rubio goes over the top and then climbs on a platform over Over the Top and then gets on a motorcycle, Evel Knievel style, and jumps 16 buses of Over the Top, making Dwight Frye look like a department store mannequin and Charles Manson look like a composed, sensible fellow. It's impossible to tell if Rubio's performance is good or bad. But he certainly gets your attention.

Lupito Tovar is far better than Helen Chandler as Mina (Eva in the Spanish version) but the part is so thinly-written that there is little an actor can do with the role, either for good or ill. Chandler belongs to the Gloria Stuart school of acting, which means she delivers every line with a high, tremulous uncertainty, as though trying to make up her mind whether to scream or faint.

One of my favorite moments from the English-language Dracula is missing from the Spanish-language version. In Tod Browning's version, Dr. Van Helsing reveals that Mina has been bitten on the neck. "What could have caused this?" Harker demands. Then we hear a voice say "Count Dracula". Everyone turns to see Count Dracula standing in the entrance of the drawing room, and it is only then we realize that the maid is announcing his arrival.

And while the Spanish-languge version does better with the business about the mirror in the cigarette box (Van Helsing looks in the mirror and sees Eva holding her hand up for Dracula to kiss, with Dracula nowhere to be seen) it's more effective for Dracula to simply knock the cigarette case out of Van Helsing's hands, as Lugosi does, rather than smash it to pieces with the cane, as Villarias has him do. Sometimes, even in horror films, less is more.

Night Monster

Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the Pollard Slough, a swamp in rural New England, miles from the nearest town. It's gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it's really creepy. That's when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.
Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.  In fact the only one in the house who isn't a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn't been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn't buying it.

About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit -- King, Timmins and Phipps -- the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.

Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room -- apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.
Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the slough nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn't prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston -- after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn't quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when it is revealed that he has no arms or legs?

Comments: We turn now from Bela Lugosi's greatest screen role to one of his most forgettable. Inexplicably cast as the butler despite his top billing, Lugosi handles his minimal duties as well as he can, trying to be spooky and somber despite having almost nothing to do. Nevertheless, Night Monster works well enough thanks to a well-paced script, an extremely professional cast and the sure hand of director Ford Beebe, a man who spent most of his career working on westerns and serials. How he wound up holding the reins on this production isn't clear, but he never seems out of his element. Of course, there is nothing particularly tricky about evoking rural New England ("A-yep, somethin' spookay goin' on over in Pollahd Slough") but all the same he does just fine shepherding us through this trip to the boneyard.

Seeing this right after The Black Cat makes notable the presence of a certain type of horror movie character who we've now seen for two weeks in a row. It's the Mystery Writer On Holiday, played last week by David Manners and this week by Don Porter, The main function of the Mystery Writer On Holiday seems to be to stand in for the audience member, marveling at the strange goings on around him, and to observe that a) his friends will think this is just one of his crazy tales when he gets back home! and b) this crazy tale will be the makings of a crackerjack mystery story when he gets back to his typewriter! This doesn't seem to have festered into a horror movie cliche, necessarily, but I have seen it now and then when we're introduced to ensemble horror movie casts (the character of Bob Jenkins in Stephen King's novella "The Langoliers" was a mystery writer as well, played in the TV adaptation by Dean Stockwell.)

Overall, Night Monster kind of dazzles me every time I see it. This is the kind of movie that could only have come out of the studio system: modest in ambition, craftsmanlike in execution, designed to breeze in and out of movie theaters at the bottom end of a double bill. And best of all it works, which is more than you can say for most horror films released today, regardless of budget.