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.


kochillt said...

Truth be told, I never really cared much for DRACULA'S DAUGHTER. And my memories of BEHIND THE MASK were a bit hazy, not having seen it since 1982. Turner Classic Movies has aired the latter, so my reaquaintance has been a most pleasant one, especially with Edward Van Sloan playing a rare villain. THE DEATH KISS and A SHOT IN THE DARK are others where he plays a less than benign character. Incidentally, Margurite Churchill graced the screen with Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD shortly before she did this feature.

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