Sunday, October 23, 2011

Saturday, February 27, 1971:The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (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: In writing previously about Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I speculated that Elsa Frankenstein must have been the daughter of Ludwig Frankenstein, because (a) Wolf is exile and (b) she came from Vasaria, just as Ludwig did. Seeing Ghost of Frankenstein again, I realize that Elsa was under my nose the entire time. In fact, she plays a prominent role in this film -- she is clearly identified as Ludwig's daughter. How could I have forgotten her?

The answer is simple, really. I'd forgotten her because she is played by Evelyn Ankers, who never leaves any impression on me whatsoever, either good or bad.

Ankers possesses a sort of generic prettiness, but her looks aren't remarkable in any way. She is a reasonably good actress, but lacks a definitive style. She has just enough screen presence to be cast as the female lead in Universal horror films, but not quite enough to prevent her from fading into the background whenever the camera is pointed in her direction.

Compare her to Ilona Massey, who played Elsa in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and Anker's shortcomings become clear. Massey is in every way a striking presence: she projects an aloof and aristocratic manner that barely masks her guilt and anguish over her family's checkered history. Her Elsa is sharp-eyed and intelligent, someone who sees what is coming and cannot quite prevent it from overtaking her. While these attributes aren't written into the script, they are evident in Massey's face and delivery; these are the hints toward an interior life that good actors are able to communicate. Ankers is simply incapable of a performance of that caliber, and so her Elsa is entirely forgettable.

But Elsa's character doesn't have a lot to do here, so perhaps it's unfair to blame Ankers.  This movie ultimately belongs to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays Ludwig, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor.  The two actors are at the absolute top of their game, and particularly riveting in their early scenes together.  Ludwig has made a life for himself beyond the shadow of the Frankenstein clan, but now he is suddenly confronted by a man who can take all that away.  For his part, Ygor knows how much Ludwig enjoys the status and the prestige of his current position; furthermore, he knows that Ludwig's family knows nothing of his father's crimes.  Ludwig is a man with everything to lose, and therefore a tempting target for extortion.  Had money been Ygor's motive, things would have ended much more happily.

Ralph Bellamy appears as Vasaria's prosecutor as well as Elsa's love interest.  He's strangely unengaging here, much as he was in The Wolf Man.  But he's a great pro, and it's lovely to see an actor in this sort of role who isn't  Patric Knowles.

The Boogie Man Will Get You

Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.  Remote inns are especially unpopular destinations these days, due to wartime rationing of tires and gasoline.

His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us.  Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort.  He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Parks) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: I wasn't looking forward to seeing this Boris Karloff - Peter Lorre madcap comedy a second time, but I did it just the same. And I did it for you, gentle reader. Was it painful?

Yes, it was. Thanks for asking. You mustn't feel too sorry for me, though, because The Boogie Man Will Get You does have its moments.

For instance, Miss Jeff Donnell was quite engaging as Winnie Slade. Donnell was never regarded as leading lady material -- while she would be considered reasonably attractive here on Earth, in the alternate universe of Hollywood movies she is unacceptably homely. She played a prominent role in the excellent Humphrey Bogart vehicle In a Lonely Place; and she gives this distinctly minor comedy her all as well.

Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff both seem to be having a great time, and I must admit that it is fun to watch them sending up their own favored genre.  Lorre in particular has deft comic timing and his little bits of stage business -- like casually placing a kitten into his inside pocket of his coat -- are a lot of fun.

Since my last viewing I'd entirely forgotten the presence of Frank Puglia, who shows up late as Silvio Baciagalupi,  a wacky Italian soldier who escapes from a POW camp and is running around the New England countryside threatening to blow things up. In spite of 10 - 15 minutes of screen time, Puglia doesn't even appear in the credits (which seems quite strange today, given that every grip, hairdresser and caterer is now credited).

Puglia kept busy during the war, appearing in nine movies in 1942 and another 10 in 1943. He often played "ethnic" roles (usually Italians and Latinos) and appeared as Dr. Leonardo in the fondly-remembered Ray Harryhausen opus 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).  He made a smooth transition into television, doing guest shots on countless drama programs throughout the 1960s.

Larry Parks is an amiable presence in this film, and seems well-suited to screwball comedy; but what he had really hoped for was a career as a dramatic lead.  He enjoyed some recognition for playing Al Jolson in The Jolson Story  (1946) but in 1951 he ended up on the Hollywood blacklist.  His movie career ruined, he carried on gamely with stage work and a night club act, hoping that the controversy would eventually blow over and that he'd be able to resume working in Hollywood.  That never happened.  But it's difficult to say if his career would have ever taken off, with or without the blacklist.   The Boogie Man Will Get You appears to be his only genre film.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Saturday, February 20, 1971: Werewolf of London (1935) / The Black Room (1935)

Synopsis: On an expedition to the mountains of Tibet botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on the trail of a mysterious flower that blooms only in moonlight. Entering an impossibly remote region (which looks suspiciously like California's Vasquez Rocks*), he secures a specimen of the "moon flower" but is attacked by a strange creature -- seemingly part man and part wolf. Back at the laboratory in his London estate, he tries to get the moon flower to blossom under an artificial moonlight projector he has constructed, to no avail.
Glendon's obsession with discovering the secrets of the flower has caused him to neglect everyone in his life, including his beautiful and devoted wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson).
Glendon is soon visited by a mysterious scientist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland). Yogami warns Glendon that the creature that attacked him in Tibet was a werewolf; because of this, he is doomed to become one himself. The only hope for staving off the affliction is the juice from the moon flower that Glendon is now keeping in his laboratory. But it quickly becomes clear that Yogami wants the specimens for his own purposes.

Glendon notices that when he places his hand underneath the moonlight projector, the hand grows hairy; when he applies a drop of juice from one of the blossoms on the hand, it returns to normal. But there are only one or two buds on the moon flower -- not enough to help him if things get, well, really hairy.

Meanwhile, Lisa has reconnected with an old flame, Paul Ames, who has recently returned from a long stay in America. Paul runs a flight school in California, a not-so-subtle counterpoint to the deeply-rooted life of a botanist.
While Paul's behavior toward Lisa is strictly above board, it is clear that there is a mutual attraction at work, and it is also quite obvious that Paul can offer a life that Wilfred can't: the carefree, adventurous and attentive Paul is shown to be a favorable alternative to the secretive, buttoned-down Wilfred.

But soon the full Moon rises, and Wilfred's plans to lock himself away for duration fail. Now the Werewolf of London is on the loose, and looking for blood....

Comments: Werewolf of London was released more than 75 years ago, but even to the modern viewer it's obvious that Wilfred Glendon is a man out of his time. An inhabitant of 20th-century London, he nevertheless lives a distinctly 19th-century lifestyle, sporting starched Edwardian collars and frock coats and a pince-nez to go along with his no-fun-allowed attitude. By comparison Paul Ames, the Americanized Brit, seems like a barrel of laughs in his tweed suit and pencil-thin mustache.

The screenplay is actually doing a difficult balancing act throughout. We must follow Glendon and sympathize with him as the doomed protagonist that he is; but we must also be conscious of how his single-minded obsession is pushing Lisa into the arms of another man. Early in the film we hear Wilfred teased for leaving his beautiful wife alone for months on end while he searches for exotic plants. Already we are being prepared to feel sorry for his loss and at the same time hold Lisa blameless for her decision to leave him for Paul.

In fact Paul and Lisa are so on the up-and-up that they are always careful to inform Wilfred of whatever plans they have together, and invite him along. He is always the one who refuses their offers to join them in country walks and moonlight rides -- surprisingly romantic outings for a pair who wish to demonstrate their innocent intentions-- and while we easily understand that a closeted werewolf wants to avoid moonlight, perhaps Wilfred also knows that he would be a fifth wheel, and sooner or later he must let Lisa go her own way.

This creates another ticklish job for the screenwriters: it must be clear that Lisa is falling for Paul, so that Wilfred's jealousy will make her a credible focus of his rage; but she must also remain loyal to Wilfred so that she retains the sympathy of the audience. As so often happens in the movies, this little problem is solved with a convenient death. The final scene has the titular beast being mortally wounded and then, in a decidedly un-werewolflike fashion, gives a dramatic dying speech in which he absolves Lisa of any blame :

Thanks....thanks for the bullet. It was the only way. In a few moments now I shall know why all this had to be. Lisa....goodbye. Goodbye, Lisa. I'm sorry I couldn't have made you happier.
I prefer less chatty werewolves, myself, but at least Dr. Glendon had the good sense to cut it off there. No telling how long he could have continued blabbing on in this manner before one of the policemen in attendance thanked him with another bullet.


Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined "black room" of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.

Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.

The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother's rule began. At Gregor's invitation, Anton returns home.

At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.

When Gregor is implicated in the disappearance of Mashka, a gypsy serving girl, the townspeople rise up. They storm the castle and demand Gregor be handed over to them.

To everyone's surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.

While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there -- including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.

As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. "The prophesy will be fulfilled!" Anton insists. "From the grave?" Gregor asks sarcastically. "Yes," Anton says as he dies. "From the grave!"

Comments: We saw The Black Room just over a month ago (January 16th, to be precise) but I won’t complain about it popping up on the schedule again.  It’s a delightful film, one that proceeds at a much livelier pace than Werewolf of London (which gets out of the gate quickly with an opening sequence in Tibet, but bogs down in an endless garden-party scene at the Glendon house).

It's interesting that these two horror films, released in the same year, both seem to be making a bid for A-picture respectability.  Henry Hull famously refused to wear Jack Pearce’s elaborate makeup design, leaving his werewolf with a relatively human face (Pearce’s wolf makeup was eventually used for 1941’s The Wolf Man). Moreover, Hull’s werewolf is not just a senseless beast.  It can think and reason; it can even speak.  In fact Werewolf of London plays somewhat like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde, right down to Dr. Glendon’s decision to rent a room in a London slum.   The movie seems to yearn for the kind of literary pedigree that the Stevenson tale enjoyed, and seems to want the audience to view all this silly werewolf business as a metaphor for Glendon's inner demons.  The movie has a hard time taking Dr. Glendon’s affliction seriously, and as a result we can’t take it too seriously either.

And in spite of The Black Room’s horror-film tropes it gets all literary and showy on us, struggling to look like an Alexander Korda production instead of the low-rent Universal melodrama that it is.  Gregor's speech to Mashka about pears (in which he declares that pears are the best fruit because they're delicious and entirely disposable -- an obvious allusion to his opinion of women) might as well have been written for Charles Laughton for his turn in The Private Life of King Henry VIII a couple of years earlier.  And the whole look of the movie, dressed as it was in Romantic Revival style, shows its costume drama pretensions all too clearly.

But both movies are largely forgotten today outside of the horror genre, which is just as well.  Each of them works best when the horror elements are taken at face value.   The Black Room, in particular, works very well indeed.

*In an earlier post I misidentifed this location as Bronson Canyon, another well-used exterior locale.  Vasquez Rocks was used endlessly in movies and television, becoming so familiar that it was part of a visual joke in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (1991).  In that movie the lads watch an old episode of Star Trek, in which Captain Kirk fights a lizard-like alien on the escarpment; later, Bill and Ted's evil robot twins kidnap them, take them up the same escarpment, and kill them.  All in good fun.