Monday, November 21, 2011

Interlude: Frankenstein turns 80

It was exactly eighty years ago today -- Saturday, November 21, 1931 -- that James Whale's Frankenstein was released.  Here's a bit of what New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall had to say at the time:

Out of John L. Balderston's stage conception of the Mary Shelley classic, "Frankenstein," James Whale, producer of "Journey's End" as a play and as a film, has wrought a stirring grand-guignol type of picture, one that aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.
It is an artistically conceived work in which Colin Clive, the Captain Stanhope of the London stage production of the R. C. Sherriff play, was brought from England to act the rĂ´le of Frankenstein, the man who fashions a monster that walks and thinks. It is naturally a morbid, gruesome affair, but it is something to keep the spectator awake, for during its most spine-chilling periods it exacts attention. It was Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, the firm responsible for this current picture, who presented Lon Chaney in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and while, as everybody knows, Quasimodo was a repellent sight, he was a creature for sympathy compared to the hideous monster in this "Frankenstein." Boris Karloff undertakes the Frankenstein creature and his make-up can be said to suit anybody's demands. He does not portray a robot but a monster made out of human bodies, and the reason given here for his murderous onslaughts is that Frankenstein's Man Friday stole an abnormal brain after he had broken the glass bowl containing the normal one. This Frankenstein does not know.
No matter what one may say about the melodramatic ideas here, there is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it "Dracula" is tame and, incidentally, "Dracula" was produced by the same firm, which is also to issue in film form Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue."

 Hall reviews four other movies in the same issue of the paper: The Cuban Love Song, Reckless Living, His Woman, and Wonders of the Congo.  All forgotten now.  But Frankenstein will never be forgotten.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Saturday, March 13, 1971: Dracula's Daughter (1936) / Behind The Mask (1932)

Synopsis: Two bumbling policemen discover a pair of murder victims at Carfax Abbey. One is Count Dracula's old minion Renfield. The other is Dracula himself, lying in a wooden box with a stake driven through his heart. The only other person in the building is Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) who freely admits to killing the Count. The police, thinking he is mad, arrest him.

Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), the head of Scotland Yard, tells Von Helsing that he'll need a brilliant defense attorney to get him out of this mess. But Von Helsing is only interested in contacting psychologist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger), whom he feels is the only person who will truly believe his story.

Meanwhile, the body of Dracula is locked in a back room at the police station. A mysterious woman appears, hypnotizing the cop on duty and spiriting the body away.
This strange woman is, as the title suggests, Dracula's daughter (Gloria Holden). Aided by her servant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she burns her father's body and carries out a strange ritual.

With her father dead, she has purged herself of the vampire's curse, and can now go on living as a normal woman.

Or so she believes. Just as Sandor predicts, she still dreads the light of the sun and still craves the blood of fresh victims each night.

The first victim is a young man out on the town. His murder baffles the police, and Von Helsing as well, since he is convinced that Dracula is the only one who could have perpetrated such a crime.

Insinuating herself into London society as Countess Marya Zaleska, Dracula's daughter meets Jeffrey Garth, who claims to be able to cure people of deep-seated obsessions. She wishes to meet him alone to discuss her own peculiar problem. The two are clearly drawn to each other, and Garth agrees to her request, much to the consternation of his secretary / love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill).

But in the meantime her longing for blood becomes too strong, and she brings home a young woman named Lili (Nan Grey) with an offer of a modeling job. Soon Lili's body is found on the street, drained of blood and near death.

Because Lili appears to be in some sort of trance, Jeffrey Garth is brought in to consult. Garth manages to break the hypnotic block and finds out where the woman had been attacked. He's astonished to discover that it was a studio over a bookshop in Chelsea -- which is exactly where Countess Zaleska lives....

Comments: Falling in love with your employer is usually a bad idea, though it happens frequently enough in the movies and sometimes even in real life.  Pain and disaster is by far the most likely outcome of such dalliances but, as the ancient philosopher El Debarge once pointed out, the heart is not so smart.

Jeffrey Garth’s secretary Janet has long carried a torch for her boss in Dracula’s Daughter.   The fact that Garth is ignorant of this seems improbable, especially since Janet is played by the delectable Marguerite Churchill.  But we shouldn’t be too surprised that he doesn’t notice: she is like the air Garth breathes, absolutely vital to him but too easily taken for granted.  So when he begins to fall for Countess Marya Zaleska, Janet does everything she can to derail their romance.

Her machinations are fairly innocent, played for comic relief: she stands at the door and tells the countess that Jeffrey is out when he is really in, and makes prank calls to the Countess’ flat when she knows Garth is there with her.  Her jealousy manifests itself in benign ways, presumably because her intentions are not entirely selfish – she sincerely wants to steer him away from a woman that she knows is bad news.

Of course the screenwriters stack the deck heavily against the Countess, who winds up kidnapping Janet and holding her hostage in order to compel Garth’s promise of eternal companionship.  This conveniently provides him with a reason to hold her in contempt as well as an opportunity to consider what Janet really means to him.  In the end Garth is able to hold the supine Janet in his arms and see her for what she is, namely, the Pepper Potts to his Tony Stark.

That employer-employee romance ends happily, but the other one in the movie doesn’t: Countess Zaleska’s relationship with her servant Sandor is anything but healthy.  Sandor clearly wants her to fail in her quest to become human again, and late in the film we find out why: the countess had at one point promised him eternal life and companionship.  How and why the countess became involved with her creepy troll of a manservant is never explained, but it’s clear that whatever relationship they once shared has curdled.  He still craves the nocturnal lifestyle that she no longer wants.  

She is like a teenager who realizes she doesn't want to run with the goth kids anymore.  She has outgrown Sandor and now expects him to go quietly back to the original role he played in her life: namely, a member of the household staff. This, of course, is doomed to fail, and in the end it’s Sandor who pierces her heart with an arrow, like a demented Cupid.  He Is gunned down seconds later, and this is probably how he would have preferred it anyway.  I suspect he always saw himself as Romeo to her Juliet.

Behind the Mask

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's third screening of Behind the Mask, a crime thriller with some incidental horror elements, most notably Dr. Steiner's private hospital, where patients check in but don't check out.  

The presence of Karloff and Van Sloan promise the sort of cinematic hooliganism found in a Universal picture, but this opus was produced at the more straight-laced Columbia studios and for that reason horror must take a back seat.  Tough-talking G-men are at center stage here, as are pretty girls and double-crossing ex-cons.  But Karloff is perfectly fine, and Edward Van Sloan wrings every drop of evil he can from his lines at the end of the picture ("The pain, whilst I am cutting through the outer layers of skin," he purrs, "will not be unendurable.  It is only when I commence to carve on your vital organs that you will know you are having... an experience."  Mwa ha ha!)

As marvelous a heavy as Van Sloan is, the film might have worked better with a stronger narrative thread.  A Maguffin would have helped tighten the story somewhat and keep things moving.  As it is, the drug-running ring and hostile hospital subplots don't mesh very well, and the viewer is liable to forget -- more than once -- exactly what's supposed to be at stake.

Interlude: Science Fiction Double Feature

Hey you!

Let's say you live in the Twin Cities area and you're looking for a bit of good clean fun this weekend.  Howsabout a 3-D double feature?

The Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis is showing It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon on a double bill.  Horror Incorporated introduced me to both of these films, and I've always loved them.  Believe me, there is nothing like seeing them on the big screen.

The films are running Friday, Saturday and Sunday (November 18, 19 and 20) starting at 7:00.  I'll be there for every show.  Tell 'em Uncle Mike sent you.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Saturday, March 6, 1971: House of Dracula (1945) / The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

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 impatiently brushed off House of Dracula when it aired previously, grumbling that these silly monster rallies weren't worth my time.  However, I have since realized my time isn't worth that much.  This movie does have some interesting ideas anyway, so let's take a moment to unpack them.

Dr. Edelmann's ability to add vampirism and lycanthropy to the standard medical textbooks might seem improbable.  But remember that the good doctor is an educated man of the mid-20th century.  Back then science promised to illuminate all the dark recesses of human fears and superstitions.  By midcentury, in fact, there was a growing suspicion that there were no problems that science couldn't solve.

So it was only a matter of time before vampires and werewolves would be reassessed as medical conditions on a par with smallpox and polio, every bit as easy to understand and almost as easy to conquer.  This isea was bubbling up across the horror and science-fiction genres. While House of Dracula is an early attempt to provide a science-fiction explanation for vampire lore, it wasn't the first (for example, it was predated by A. E. Van Vogt's short story "Asylum", published in 1942)  nor was it particularly influential; Richard Matheson was clearly coming from another direction when he wrote his seminal 1954 novel I Am Legend.  That novel was enormously influential; in fact,  people have been cribbing from Matheson ever since.*

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last normal human on Earth after a plague turns everyone else into vampires.  He is a smart and rational man, and during the course of the novel he trains himself to be a biologist in order to isolate the plague that causes vampirism.  This is an important facet of the novel, one missing from its  (three) screen adaptations.**  Neville has an admirably realistic view of science: it isn't technological sorcery that can only be practiced by the members of its designated priesthood.  Rather, it is a system of problem-solving that is based on clearly defined rules.

This is pretty important, I think, and it's where the wheels come off  House of Dracula.  For all the hand-waving toward reason and truthDr. Edelmann is a member of the designated priesthood, and for all the appeals to science and rationality, Edelmann is just a sorcerer with an alternate pedigree.  For all the patter about blood parasites, at the end of the day Dracula's blood is dirty and corrupt, and when Edelmann gets a dose of it he becomes dirty and corrupt as well.

And the werewolf "cure" by surgery could just as easily have been supernatural in origin; in fact the rare plant that is a necessary ingredient to the medical procedure might as well have magical properties, since there is no alternate way to derive the chemical which it provides.

Ironically Frankenstein's monster, which is the only one that can claim a science-fiction origin, is in a coma for nearly the entire picture.  It wakes up in time to stumble around for a few minutes and then get burned to death.  Again.

The death of noble Dr. Edelmann comes across as genuinely tragic, especially when you consider that Henry Frankenstein did much worse and got off much easier.  Jane Adams turns in a very sympathetic performance as Nina, Dr. Edelmann's hunchbacked assistant, though there is something palpably nasty about the undignified way she's disposed of at the end.

Clearly Martha O'Driscoll's Milliza is seen as the "good" girl in this picture, and she is allowed to walk off into the sunset (or moonrise, if you prefer) holding hands with the man of her dreams -- even if he turns out to be Lon Chaney, Jr.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient's body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob's heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob's heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.
At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .

On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.

The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.

Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors -- as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney -- have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard's voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he's already dead....

Comments: The character of Dr. Henryk Savaard suffers from two basic problems in The Man They Could Not Hang.  The first problem is the stereotypical tone-deafness of a scientist who has lived too long in his own head.  During Dr. Savaard's trial, he pleads with the jury to consider the possible benefits of his research.  He likens surgery to trying to repair a car while the engine is running.  Being able to suspend all autonomic functions, he explains, will make it possible to transplant organs, even the heart, opening up the prospect of eternal life. He thinks that by capturing the imagination of his audience he can mitigate what they view as his criminal negligence.  But those gathered in the courtroom scoff at his ideas.

This line of patter is, of course, less crazy-sounding than it would have been in 1939 (what Dr. Savaard invented was essentially a pump that would keep the blood circulating while the heart was stopped.  Such pumps are common today, as are organ transplants) but it's still difficult to work up a lot of sympathy for Dr. Savaard's situation.

I presume there were medical releases of some kind, even in 1939, and Savaard would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he'd gotten his lab assistant to sign one before experimenting on him.

And if he had resisted the urge to vow bloody vengeance against everyone in the courtroom, he might have gotten more sympathy from the audience, if not the judge.

Dr. Savaard's second big problem is that in his single-minded pursuit of revenge he kills his most important friend and ally.  This is Dr. Lang, murdered in order to serve as Dr. Savaard's fall guy.  This killing is so outside the rules of fair play -- even in a revenge story -- that we must wonder if Savaard's cold-bloodedness is a side effect of the "treatment" that brought him back from the dead.

It's never brought up as a possibility in The Man They Could Not Hang, but Dr. Savaard's turn to evil would have been more plausible and more dramatic if it had been caused by an unexpected product of being hanged, frozen like a popsicle, mended and brought back to life.  It seems plausible that meddling with the unknown will only lead to trouble.  After all, there are some things that Man was not meant to know.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?

* George Romero's film Night of the Living Dead (1968) is clearly influenced by I Am Legend, both in terms of its premise (wretched undead outside, human protagonists barricaded inside) and in its scientific explanation for the sudden ubiquity of the undead.  Zombies had heretofore been described as the products of black magic.  Romero's film  referred to radiation brought back by an unmanned Venus probe as the cause; today zombie movies are a staple of the horror genre, and the rise of the living dead is routinely ascribed to a virus of some sort.  This has become the default concept of zombies in the public mind, and you would be hard-pressed to find any reference to black magic in a modern zombie story.
**Interestingly, all the film adaptations omit Neville's self-made scientific credentials, either for reasons of storytelling economy or because the screenwriters felt his blue-collar background was insufficiently glamorous.  In The Last Man On Earth (1964) Neville is a microbiologist who just happens to be immune from the plague.  In both The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2008) he is both a microbiologist and a career military officer.  His occupation in the novel is never defined; but he had apparently worked in a manufacturing plant of some kind, perhaps as a machinist.