Monday, January 2, 2012

Saturday, April 3, 1971: The Wolf Man (1941) / The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Synopsis: Lawrence Talbot returns to his family's estate after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades.  He is welcomed back by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and talk quickly turns to Larry's elder brother, who was recently killed in a hunting accident. Now that he is the eldest, Lawrence is heir to the estate, as well as heir to his father's limited capacity for affection.

Lawrence has spent a good deal of time in California, and it shows: by the standards of his home town he is distressingly informal and decidedly frivolous, taking more interest in local shopgirl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) than in the more serious matters surrounding the family estate. Nevertheless Sir John is happy about the prodigal son's return, believing that Lawrence (or "Larry", as he has taken to calling himself) has spent enough time in the New World to benefit the stodgy old ways of Talbot Castle. Larry is certainly good with tools and machines; it's when he is working with modern contrivances that he seems happiest and most self-assured.

In an attempt to get on Gwen's good side, Larry purchases an unusual item from her family's shop: an ornate cane with a silver wolf's head. The wolf, we learn, is a potent and fearful symbol of the supernatural in these parts, as is the pentacle, which is also etched on the handle of the cane.
It turns out that Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), a decent fellow; nevertheless, Gwen accompanies Larry to a Gypsy camp, where they hope to have their fortunes told. At the last minute, Gwen invites her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to join them.

Alas, poor Jenny! She really ought to have known better. As Gwen and Lawrence walk together under the light of the full Moon, Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi). What the fortune-teller sees in Jenny's future alarms him, and he urges Jenny to go home -- immediately. Terrified, Jenny runs away into the woods.

Almost immediately, Jenny is set upon by some sort of animal. Larry, hearing her screams, rushes to her aid, and attacks the creature with his cane. He manages to kill it, but not before it mauls his chest. Larry staggers away, collapsing only a few yards from Jenny's body.

Larry is taken home. The next morning he learns several disturbing facts: Jenny is dead, her throat ripped out. While a wolf clearly attacked her, no wolf carcass was found in the area; instead, the body of Bela the fortune-teller was found nearby, his head smashed in, presumably by Larry's cane. Moreover, Larry's chest shows no animal bites whatsoever.

Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could wounds on his chest be his imagination? And why wasn't Bela wearing his shoes?

That night, Larry Talbot undergoes a terrible transformation: he becomes a werewolf beneath the full Moon, and murders a gravedigger. The next morning, Larry confesses everything, but no one believes him.

No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), whose own son Bela suffered from the same curse....

Comments: If you imagine human history as an endless game of craps played in a smoky back room in a Jersey City gambling club (as I do), the Roma people of eastern Europe would've been the ones rolling snake eyes for close to a thousand years.  They have endured slavery, diaspora, pogroms, institutionalized racism, generations of grinding poverty and attempted genocide at the hands of the Nazis.  Here in the U.S. they are known as Gypsies, a misnomer based on an old belief that they originated in Egypt (in fact, their ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent).  Even today, the Roma aren't popular among the ethnic majorities of Romania and the other countries they settled in, most often perceived as vagrants and troublemakers.

Just as their luck has been consistent, their depiction in the movies has been surprisingly consistent as well. Since the early days of Hollywood they've been portrayed as operating outside the normal boundaries of civilized society.  The enclaves they inhabit serve to safeguard forbidden knowledge, and the Gypsies themselves, though suspicious of outsiders, can serve as guides to both the spiritual and the sensual worlds, which in horror movies tend to be inextricably linked.*

In the case of The Wolf Man, the forbidden knowledge the Gypsies protect is lycanthropy. Werewolves, like the Gypsies themselves, are both spiritual and sensual in nature.  Werewolf stories are all about the id running amok, and while Margaret Atwood has pointed out that this is an adolescent fantasy, it is also the sort of adult nightmare in which horror films regularly traffic: specifically, the nightmare of losing your marbles and destroying everything that's precious to you.  In light of this, the casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. was inspired, because he easily conveys  not only Larry Talbot's genial and happy-go-lucky nature, but also his capacity for self-destructive rage.  In the scene where he confronts Jenny's mother and the other town biddies who are accusing Gwen Conliffe of improper behavior, we see clearly that he's capable of violence.  When he towers over them** -- angrily brandishing the cane that they all know killed Bela -- there is murder in his eye and the townsfolk see it, nearly falling over one another trying to get out of the shop.  

That Chaney conveys this rage so effortlessly might speak less to his acting chops than to his real-world experience.  By all accounts he was a mean as well as a habitual drunk, and he all to easily captures the brutish mien to which his unfortunate co-stars were all too often exposed.

Talbot is the active agent throughout the film, trying to extricate himself from the trap in which he's found himself.  But in many ways he isn't the center of gravity in this movie.  That honor goes to Maria Ouspenskaya's Maleva.  She isn't surprised that Talbot's angst and self-pity come to nothing. To her there is no sense of urgency, because Talbot is doomed, the way her son Bela was doomed.  But because her brand of fatalism is alien to the can-do American audience for which it was intended, she can only occasionally appear on the sidelines as the movie goes on, stepping forward only at the end to deliver the same eulogy that she's offered for the luckless Bela:

The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own
But as the rain enters the soil, the rivers enter the sea
So tears run to a predestined end.  Your suffering is over.
Now you will find peace for eternity.

Ouspenskaya provides just the right tone here, ending the movie with the appropriate measure of sorrow and dignity. Alas, she wouldn't be as well-used in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; in that opus poor Maleva has to undertake a week-long road trip with Larry Talbot, and get grilled by the flatfoots of the Vasaria Police Department.

The Mad Ghoul

Synopsis: Professor of chemistry Alfred Morris (George Zucco) delivers a lecture about the ancient Mayans to a room full of university students. He describes how the Mayans employed a strange gas to make their enemies into zombie-like slaves. Morris further demonstrates that what archeologists had believed was ritual sacrifice was in fact a practical means of temporarily bringing the zombies back to normal.

After the lecture, Morris asks medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) to assist him in a new line of research. Ted is surprised and elated by this honor.

Morris shows Ted the experiment he's working on: a monkey is exposed to the gas Dr. Morris had referenced in his lecture. As a result, Morris says, the monkey is somnambulant and prone to external suggestion. But when the heart from another monkey is removed and its "heart matter" used on the test subject, the result is a peppy monkey that is as good as new.

Ted congratulates Dr. Morris on this discovery, and tells him that he can't wait to tell his girlfriend Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) , a singer whose career is taking off. In fact, Ted and Isabel are planning to have dinner that very evening because Isabel is leaving the next day on a multi-city tour.

Morris suggests he bring Isabel over to his house for dinner -- that way, he says, they can all celebrate.  
While Ted and Isabel are over that evening, Morris sends Ted out on an errand that takes him out of the room for a few minutes. While he is gone Morris tells Isabel that he knows she is unhappy; that she has outgrown Ted and is looking for a more sophisticated man -- a more experienced man -- "who knows the book of Life and can teach you to read it". Isabel admits that all this is true, but she is afraid of hurting Ted by breaking off the engagement. Morris tells her that he believes Ted will break off the engagement himself.

The next day, Morris arranges for Ted to be exposed to the Mayan gas. Ted becomes a blank-eyed zombie who must obey Dr. Morris' commands. The two go to a nearby cemetery, where they dig up the grave of a man buried earlier in the day. Morris forces Ted to remove the heart from the cadaver.

Ted wakes up in a bedroom in Morris' house. He is back to normal, remembering nothing of what has happened to him. But he's shocked to discover that two days have passed, and Isabel has already left on her tour.

He follows Isabel to her next city. Morris, feigning concern for Ted's health, goes with him, and urges him to break off the engagement for health reasons. Ted does so. But when he unexpectedly reverts to his zombie state, another grave must be robbed.

Meanwhile, Dr. Morris is stunned to learn that Isabel is in love with her accompanist, Eric Iverson (Turhan Bey), and that the two are planning to marry.

When Ted becomes a zombie once again, Morris gives him a handgun and new instructions: to first kill Eric, and then kill himself....

Comments: Evelyn Ankers appeared in a total of eight films from  the Shock! and Son of Shock! packages, and tonight we're treated to two of them.  The Wolf Man, of course, is one of her best (and best-known) performances.  The Mad Ghoul isn't, but it's hardly her fault.

What's most often mentioned about this little under-achiever of a film is the fact that it manages to tell an extremely ghoulish story (a zombie slave digging up freshly-buried corpses, cutting out their hearts,  and eating them in order to return to normal) without showing a single drop of blood.  In fact the method of obtaining and ultimately using the "heart matter" retrieved from the graveyard is handled so obliquely that we're allowed to draw our own conclusions of exactly what happens.  It seems fairly clear that by "heart matter" we're talking about the heart itself, or a portion thereof,  but how the heart matter restores the afflicted human to normal isn't specified.  But it seems likely that the heart is, in some manner, ingested by the zombie.

Since all the gore is off-camera and all the talk about the gore is handled in euphemisms, the chore of scaring the pants off the audience falls to the moody lighting of cinematographer Milton Krasner and the makeup effects of Jack Pierce.  Pierce's salad days at the studio were behind him now, and it wouldn't be long before Universal would unceremoniously dump him.  But he does well on what's clearly a limited budget here, giving David Bruce the appearance of sunken eyes and dessicated, parchment-like skin, somewhat reminiscent of Boris Karloff's Ardeth Bey in The Mummy.

Speaking of members of the Bey family, let's not forget Turhan Bey as that old smoothie Eric Iverson; in a very few scenes, Bey manages to come across as a decent and likable fellow, though I still maintain that Isabel -- who asks Dr. Morris to tell David she's breaking it off with him,  even after she's become engaged to Eric -- is the biggest coward to ever scamper across the screen in a Universal horror film.

I can't blame Evelyn Ankers for that, though; she's only responsible for how Isabel is played.  I'm trying to remember her performance, but I can't.

Sorry.  It's gone.

*This idea persists even today, perhaps because everything most screenwriters know about Gypsies comes from old movies.  2011's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows offers a stereotypical view of Gypsies as the anti-Amish: they are an insular society of fun-loving but superstitious fortune-tellers, sneak-thieves and sensualists.
**The six-foot-two actor is shot from below here, to make him appear more imposing.


kochillt said...

No wonder Chaney was so proud of his 'baby,' as it did seem to call upon actual character traits, in much the same way as Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN. THE MAD GHOUL seems to be curiously underrated even today, perhaps because it was a rare Universal that failed to warrant a sequel. Among those low grade mad doctors at PRC, George Zucco has his best starring showcase (apart from THE MUMMY'S HAND), and a better than usual cast sees Milburn Stone working in tandem with a young Charles McGraw, plus the added bonus of Robert Armstrong as a reporter who gets more than he bargained for in a shocking plot twist. Not to mention Rose Hobart and top billed David Bruce, whose only other genre role came in the later CALLING DR. DEATH.

Uncle Mike said...

Milburn Stone, of course, also appeared in the Inner Sanctum programmer THE FROZEN GHOST. As to Robert Armstrong, I'm always happy when he turns up. I've been a fan of his since the first time I saw KING KONG.

kochillt said...

Milburn Stone was such a ubiquitous presence at Universal throughout the war years that I'm sure he had more credits than any other featured actor, and I was never aware of his later 2 decades on GUNSMOKE. The most recent title in the SHOCK! package was DANGER WOMAN, and he played the villain. And Robert Armstrong had an even better showcase in THE SON OF KONG, with the adorable Helen Mack (MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM).

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