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.


Uncle Mike said...

Interestingly, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was derided for many years as a cheap shock picture (one critic snarked that it was "the best movie ever Pittsburgh"). But it is a splendidly-paced and genuinely suspenseful horror film, one that stands up remarkably well on repeat viewing. It's amazing that even though an entire movie subgenre has arisen from it, Romero embedded all the rules of zombie behavior in its brisk 96 minutes.

kochillt said...

HOUSE OF DRACULA was the last hurrah for many Universal favorites, but was truly the final feature performance for Lionel Atwill, who did only one serial, LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE, before his death only 6 months following its completion. I thought Karloff's courtroom speech showed him at his peak, totally convincing no matter what the required dialogue. It's true that the killing of Lang removed any sympathy for his character, but aren't we always rooting for our favorite villains? You gotta love Lugosi in THE DEVIL BAT, just as his creations are tearing out the throats of their helpless victims. Of course, old Hollywood demanded that they meet a gloomy end, but not before experiencing a measure of success until then.

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