Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday, October 9, 1971: Bluebeard (1944) / Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Paris, the body of a young woman is fished out of the river Seine. She has been strangled, another victim of the notorious serial killer Bluebeard.  Women are urged to stay in at night, and not to take unnecessary risks - but it's difficult to take precautions when no one knows what Bluebeard looks like.

One evening young Babette (Patti McCarty) and her two friends Constance (Carrie Devan) and Lucille (Jean Parker), knowing that women aren't safe on the streets after dark, decide to walk home together.  On the gaslit streets they meet Gaston Morel, whom Babette recognizes -- he is "The Puppeteer", a painter well-known in Paris for the elaborate puppet operas he stages in the park.  Morel seems charmed to meet the young women, but is especially interested in Lucille, who claims to be entirely unafraid of Bluebeard.  He invites them all to see his show the following night, but it is clear that Lucille is the one he hopes will attend.

The following evening, Morel scans the crowd as he and his puppeteers perform "Faust".  He sees Lucille and after the show invites her backstage.  He tells her that he wishes to paint her; will she sit for him?

Flattered, she tells him that she will.  Meanwhile, Morel's assistant Renee angrily watches his flirtation with the new woman.

Later, Morel returns home to find Renee waiting for him.  She is angry that he is flirting with another new girl, and hurt that there have been other women who have posed for his pictures, women who have temporarily replaced her.  But, she says, "You always return to me."

Morel is dismissive, telling her to go home, but she presses him further.  What, she asks, has happened to the  women he's had dalliances with?  Where have they gone?  Angered, Morel removes his cravat and strangles her with it .  Later, he dumps her body in the river.

The next day, he goes to the police station, and reports Renee missing.  When her body is pulled out of the river he is asked to identify the body.  He does so, telling the police that Renee left the park before he did, and he is unable to say if she left alone or in someone's company.

But the next time Morel sees Lucille, he tells her that what he really wants is for her to make new costumes for his puppets.  By this time we've figured out an important part of Bluebeard's m.o. -- he only strangles women who have posed for the pictures he's painted.  Does the fact that he no longer wants to paint Lucille mean he is becoming genuinely fond of her?

Apparently so --  and Lucille is growing fond of him too.  She mends one of his torn cravats (which will, of course, prove to be an important plot point) and the two are spending more and more time together.

Meanwhile, police inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) discovers that a painting on display in a Paris gallery has as its subject one of Bluebeard's victims.  He looks for other paintings by the same hand, and sure enough, all of the victims of Bluebeard appear to have sat for paintings.  But the identity of the artist is shrouded in mystery.

Lefevre locates the dealer of the paintings, who will not divulge the name of the artist.  Lefevre conducts a sting operation, arranging for a wealthy patron of the arts to offer an outrageous sum to the dealer -- if he can get the mysterious painter to take a last-minute job.  Tempted by the money, the dealer talks Morel into doing it.  But what Morel doesn't know is that his studio is now surrounded by the police -- and that the woman he is painting is Lucille's younger sister Francine....

Comments:  Bluebeard is a good example of the kind of movies Edgar G. Ulmer made throughout his career: while it isn't a great film, it is far better than it has any right to be.  Shot in 6 days at PRC, it is as good or better than any of Universal's comparable efforts in the mid 1940s. Ulmer makes good use of stock footage, which allows him to successfully evoke 19th-century Paris on the cramped poverty-row soundstages.  

He  handles his cast well, even coaxing a decent performance out of the incurably hammy John Carradine (in fact, this is probably the best performance of Carradine's career, though that isn't saying much).  The only over-the-top moments come as Carradine garrotes his victims -- we always get an extreme close-up of his bulging  eyes -- but for the most part Carradine is surprisingly low-key.  I have to imagine it was Ulmer who compelled him to dial it down; it's hard to believe that Carradine would deliver a restrained performance of his own volition.

Jean Parker plays Lucille, the ostensible protagonist and the focus of Morel's obsession.  You may remember her from the Inner Sanctum vehicle Dead Man's Eyes, in which she played Heather Hayden.  Parker never seems to stand out as an actress, and her features are too sharp to be attractive; it's a stretch to think that Morel would single her out as his new obsession.  Nevertheless, she turns in a good, workmanlike performance.

Teala Loring is somewhat more interesting as Lucille's kid sister Francine. Some reviews of Bluebeard speculate that Francine is the love interest of Inspector Lefevre; but I like to think their connection is more professional.  Francine is a sometime police operative, willing to serve as the bait in a series of risky stings.  Inevitably it catches up to her, but it's nice to see a woman in this era get more to do than just look pretty and be supportive of the leading man.  

Lefevre himself is played by Nils Asther, who so ably played the mystic Agor Singh in Night Monster. 

Interestingly, the serial killer is publicly referred to as "Bluebeard"  (the term refers to  a serial killer who preys upon his own discarded  paramours) long before Morel becomes a suspect.  That is the sort of continuity gap that would sink a bigger-budgeted picture.  But because it's a PRC title, we just shrug and go with it.

Entirely absent from this production is a plot point common to Bluebeard plots -- the killer telling his new lover to never open this locked door, no matter what.  I will admit I kept waiting for that moment, but it never came.

Before I Hang

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death. 

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution. 

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.  But moments before the scheduled execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every way 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: There's an interesting moment in Before I Hang that takes place in the prison warden's office.  Dr. Garth is expounding on his theory of old age.  He tells the warden that contrary to popular belief, there's no reason why human beings ought to grow old and die.  Theoretically, the human lifespan should be unlimited. He mentions the work of Dr. Alexis Carrell, who proved that individual cells can reproduce indefinitely.  It's only when those cells are at work in the human body, says Dr. Garth, that the stresses of life build up toxins that cause the body to decay. 

Dr. Garth's name-check is intriguing because Carrel was a real person, a Nobel Prize winner who did groundbreaking work in the areas of vascular and open-heart surgery.

He was also interested in the science of aging. The work Dr. Garth mentions was widely known at the time the screenplay was written.  In 1912, Carrel sealed a culture taken from a chicken's heart inside a flask, giving it regular doses of nutrient.  He reported that the cells continued to divide in the flask for more than twenty years, proving that individual cells can reproduce far beyond the lifespan of the creature from which they were taken. Carrel's findings captured the popular imagination, and for decades the idea that cells can live forever outside the body was commonly believed to be true.

But Carrel's research could never be replicated by other scientists, and his claims eventually lost credibility.  In the end scientists eventually discovered what would be known as the "Hayflick limit" -- a cap on the number of times a cell can divide.  The prevailing view today is that cell division is finite because if it weren't, replication errors would eventually creep into the DNA sequence, and cancer would run wild in the organism.  It turns out that humans aren't meant to live forever - just long enough to transmit their DNA to a new generation.  Then their work is done.

Unfortunately, Carrel's interests extended into some unsavory areas.  He was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, and lavished great praise on the Nazi program of exterminating those whom society believed to be inferior. After the German invasion, Carrel used his connections with the infamous Marshall Petain to secure an important medical post in Vichy France. After the country was liberated, Carrell was arrested and charged with treason, but he died in 1944, before he could stand trial.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Saturday, September 25, 1971: Night of Terror (1932) / The Devil Commands (1940)

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).

Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment.

Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household.

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household -- including the servants -- shares in the inheritance. What's more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?


I wrote about this goofy little Columbia programmer here; this is Night of Terror's third go-round on Horror Incorporated.  It comes off a bit like a stage play, with the main setting the drawing room of the Rinehart mansion.  There are lots of doors in the old house, allowing characters to race in and out from all directions.

There's a plot, of course, but I'd suggest you don't think too much about it. You're better off letting the movie wash over you. 

The murders that occur are the sort that happen in Agatha Christie novels -- they are pieces of an interesting puzzle, and there's not that much at stake, even when the ostensible protagonists are threatened.

As thinly-drawn as many of the characters are, we at least get to see some good actors at work; particularly the under-utilized Bela Lugosi and Sally Blane, who was born Elizabeth Young and was the sister of Loretta Young.  Blane really sparkles here, and serves as an aristocratic counterbalance to Wallace Ford's down-market reporter.

Interestingly, Sally Blane's son Robert Foster was a late-night creature feature host in the 1970s.  He appeared on KTLA in Los Angeles, doing a pretty funny hosting schtick as "Grimsby":

"Night of Terror" used to be incredibly hard to find; but the Internet is gradually making these sorts of movies easier and easier to access.  You can now find the whole thing here.

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head. 

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.
Blair's colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter's homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration -- forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love.

Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.  Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.

To his astonishment, he finds that Helen's unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. 

The building's maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead -- she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.  Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.
Blair's idea is to use Mrs. Walters' naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like the amplifying grid in a vacuum tube. 

Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.
Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. 

He convinces Blair's housekeeper, a local woman named Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what's in Blair's secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock -- a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads....

Comments: Wallace MacDonald was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades who emerged from the silent era, remaking his career less from a desire to expand his horizons than from sheer necessity.  He'd been a silent film actor since 1914, appearing in some notable pictures, including The Primrose Path (1925), opposite Clara Bow; as the title character in the serial Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and as the ill-fated Peter Godolphin in The Sea Hawk (1924).

The silent era ended too abruptly for many actors, who couldn't adapt to the times and were swept out of the business.  But MacDonald turned to writing with some success (his credits included the Gene Autry vehicle The Phantom Empire, 1935), and had even better luck as a producer at Columbia, starting with Parole Racket in 1937, and carrying on through a slew of unspectacular but solid programmers, including The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which has popped up a few times on Horror Incorporated, as well as a cycle of Boris Karloff mad scientist pictures, all of which we've seen late at night on channel 5: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939); The Man With Nine Lives (1940); Before I Hang (1940) ; and tonight's feature, The Devil Commands.

Of the four, this one is by far the best, for a number of reasons.  In a nutshell, this was the only film of the series to be directed by Edward Dmytryk, who manages to imbue the low-budget affair with a keen atmosphere of dread.  The scene in which the soft-spoken Karloff faces off with the soft-spoken sheriff played by Kenneth MacDonald ( a stage name, by the way  - he is no relation to Wallace MacDonald) is memorable because it's played so differently than similar scenes in similar pictures.

The premise of The Devil Commands is no less absurd than those of the other
Karloff films at Columbia, but somehow Dmytryk manages, through small tricks of verisimilitude, to pull it off.  He seems to understand that horror films must remain plausible, even when the premise is unlikely - in fact, it plausibility becomes more important with an unlikely premise, not less important.

And unlike the other Karloff mad scientist pictures at Columbia, this one doesn't actually feature a mad scientist at all.  The grief-stricken Dr. Blair is motivated not by revenge nor bloodlust nor vanity.   He wants, quite simply, to be reunited with someone he has lost, and it is this desire that connects him with the gullible Karl and the cynical Mrs. Walters.  In a sense all three are in the same business, though they are all approaching the afterlife from different angles.  Karl is a wide-eyed believer; Mrs. Walters a crooked seer; and Blair a scientist who believes that his rational approach will make the afterlife logical and accessible to him.  He does learn his lesson, but as is often the case in these sort of movies, he learns it too late.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Saturday, September 18, 1971: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Note: My previous write-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is here.

Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) meets his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) at the Santa Mira train station.  Sally tells him that there are an unusual number of patients waiting at his office.  All of them urgently insist on seeing Bennell personally, and none of them want to see the doctors who have agreed to take Miles' patients in his absence.

As Miles and Sally drive into town they narrowly avoid hitting a local boy named Jimmy Grimaldi, who charges into the road, fleeing from his own mother.  Jimmy is distraught and takes off into the woods. His mother says the boy doesn't want to go to school.  Miles notices that the Grimaldi family vegetable stand, usually thriving at this time of the year, is shuttered.

At the office, Miles discovers that all of the patients who had been so insistent on seeing him have cancelled their appointments.  But one person does come to visit him: Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) , a high school sweetheart who, like Miles, has been recently divorced.  Becky asks Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who seems to be suffering under the strange delusion that her uncle Ira is an imposter.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy Grimaldi's grandmother brings the boy to Miles' office.  Jimmy is suffering from a similar delusion; he believes that his own mother is not his mother, and he becomes hysterical whenever anyone suggests she be called.  Miles tells the grandmother to keep the boy at her house for a few days, and prescribes sedatives to keep him calm.

Bothered by the similarity between the two stories, Miles decides to go to Wilma's house directly and talk to her.  Wilma seems perfectly rational -- except for the fact that she is certain Ira isn't her uncle.  Miles tries to reason with her, pointing out that if Ira were an imposter, there would be countless differences that friends and family could easily spot.  She concedes that the man seems like Ira in every way, and even knows things that only Ira could know.  Nevertheless, she says, this person is an imposter who possesses no emotions - -only, she says, the pretense of emotions.

Puzzled, Miles keeps a dinner date with Becky.  Arriving at the restaurant the two bump into Miles' friend Danny Kaufman, a psychiatrist.  Miles mentions that he has two patients he'd like to refer, and Kaufman immediately guesses that they are people who believe close relatives are imposters.  Over the last two weeks, Kaufman says, there has been an epidemic of such cases in Santa Mira.

Minutes later Miles' answering service tracks him down with an urgent call from Miles' friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), asking Miles to come over right away.  Miles and Becky arrive to find there is a body lying on the Belicec's pool table; but it doesn't appear to be a dead body.  Rather, it seems to be a body that was never alive.  The face is blank and featureless, and there are no fingerprints.  Miles speculates that if he were to perform an autopsy all the internal organs would be in perfect order, as if they had never been used.

Jack's wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) asks Miles to estimate the body's height and weight.  Miles says that the man on the table is perhaps 5 foot 9, and about 140 pounds.  Teddy replies fearfully that Jack too is 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds.

Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, with instructions to call the police if nothing happens by morning; if however the body changes in any way they should call him.  Miles takes Becky home, where she is surprised to find that her father has been working unusually late down in the cellar.  Meanwhile, at the Belicic house, Jack falls asleep while sitting at the bar -- just as the body on the table opens its eyes....

Comments: Walter Wanger was a successful Hollywood producer who was dumped from RKO after overseeing an expensive flop (the Ingrid Bergman vanity project Joan of Arc). So dismal was the film's reputation that he found himself frozen out of the major studios. His friendship with the Mirisch brothers got him an invitation to essentially start his career over again at Monogram.

This was undoubtedly a humiliation for Wanger (his contract was for a meager $12,000 per picture) but happily, Monogram was undergoing something of a metamorphosis at the time.  With television emerging as a genuine threat, Monogram realized that its cheap and threadbare productions offered nothing that people could not now get at home.  And so the studio invented a new brand called Allied Artists, focusing on medium-budget pictures that could hold their own against the new technology.

This was in 1951. Later that year Wanger came to believe that his wife was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang.  Wanger shot Lang twice but (fortunately for them both) didn't kill him.  Wanger wound up doing a stretch in prison after pleading temporary insanity.

Hollywood always likes a good story, and it is still said today that Wanger's time in stir opened his eyes to the brutality of America's prison system, and inspired him to make Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954), a solid moneymaker for Allied Artists. But it's not clear to what extent Wanger's prison experience influenced the picture: he'd only spent a few months at the County Honor Farm in Castaic.  Not a pleasant place, to be sure - but it wasn't Sing Sing either.

In any event, Wanger was fond of socially conscious themes, like those found in Riot In Cell Block 11  and  I Want To Live! (1958), an anti-capital punishment film.  His other big hit for Allied Artists was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which dealt with the somewhat more esoteric theme of dehumanization.

Many have tried over the years to make the movie's villains - the emotionless "pod people" who have replaced the good and decent people of Santa Mira - a metaphor for some particular element of society.  For many years liberal critics claimed that they represented the conformist wing of 1950s America. Others claimed the pods represented a feared communist infiltration of American society.  But director Don Siegel seemed to have a more general view.  He was justifiably proud of this picture, and throughout his life used the phrase "pod people" to describe those he saw as cogs in the machine -- people who had given in to apathy and mediocrity, the ones who could make the world a better place but chose not to do so because it was just too much effort.

While the movie is seen in retrospect as being quite influential, its premise isn't in fact all that original.  Jack Finney's novel was serialized in 1954 in the mainstream publication Colliers, giving it a certain amount of middlebrow street cred; but by then a number of SF films and novels had already dealt with the idea of people being replaced by alien duplicates.  John W. Campbell's novella "Who Goes There?" was published in the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In that story, a group of scientists in Antarctica are confronted by an alien that can not only absorb human bodies, but human memories and emotions as well, and can therefore create exact duplicates. Much of the story's tension derives from the scientists attempting to guess who among them is still  human and who isn't

When Campbell's novella was adapted for the screen (as 1951's The Thing From Another World)  the alien duplicate subplot was dropped. But it appeared in Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (1953)  although this time the aliens were plotting to gain unfettered access to the hardware stores of Sand Rock, Arizona.

While there were no alien doppelgangers in William Cameron Menzie's Invaders From Mars (1953), there are humans who are dragooned into the service of an alien intelligence (a common trope in 50s SF films - it pops up in  It Conquered the World (1956), Invisible Invaders (1959), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) , and many others). And Philip K. Dick had published his short story "The Father-Thing"  the same year that Finney's serial was published; typical of Dick's writing at the time the backdrop is domestic (the alien invasion happens in the suburbs) and deeply paranoid  (the protagonist is a boy who sees his own father's body disposed of by an evil duplicate; but he must not let the pseudo-father know that he knows).

But with the exception of Campbell's novella, these other works are largely forgotten.  It was Invasion of the Body Snatchers that jumped the genre fence and became a part of America's collective postwar unconscious.  And little wonder - the town of Santa Mira is a beautifully-rendered slice of Americana, and its inhabitants are far more plausibly human than the chatty eggheads in Campbell's story or the cardboard cutouts of Arnold's desert town. Perhaps you have to start with something authentic if you want to convince audiences that they've been replaced with something phony.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Saturday, September 11, 1971: Behind the Mask (1932) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

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: Life before the internet: nasty, brutish and short.

At least, that's what future generations will say. Our grandchildren will marvel that we were ever able to find information without an oracular Google to tell us what we needed to know.

And no doubt newspapers will come in for the greatest amount of puzzlement. Folded sheets of printed material, updated twice daily from a central office in the city, sold in every store and from machines at every busy intersection - the idea is laughable, when you think about it.

Yet for all their technological limitations, newspapers were astonishingly versatile -- kind of a primitive, self-contained internet. They served as news aggregators, they contained a variety of blogs, a version of Craigslist, a movie-listings app, a sports site that gave heavy emphasis to local teams.  They contained all the news you needed to know - everything from world news, to national news, down to state and local coverage, even what was going on in your local city council.

And in the days before televisions came with their own on-screen program guides, newspapers offered those too.  In fact, newspapers were our only guide to what was on television at any given time - unless you subscribed to TV Guide,  but of course only rich eccentrics did that.

So let's open the Minneapolis Tribune and find out what's being offered on Horror Incorporated for the evening of Saturday, September 11, 1971.

Midnight- Behind the Mask (1932) A US secret service agent risks life and limb to capture "Mr. X", a notorious and cruel head of a dope ring. Boris Karloff, Constance Cummings and Jack Holt. Channel 5.

Based on this description, you might think that Behind the Mask is a standard crime drama from the 1930s, its only claim to being a horror film being the presence of Boris Karloff (who isn't the star, as the description implies, but a supporting player).

And while it's really not much of a horror film, it does have its moments -- all of which center around the mysterious Eastland Hospital, run by the Keyser Soze-esque Mr. X.

Hospitals are fertile ground for horror films, delving into the primal fear that the ones we choose to trust (or are forced to trust) when we're sick or injured, when we're at our most vulnerable, are plotting to do us harm.  In an almost child-like fashion, Agent Burke is led away by Dr. Steiner, not knowing that he's soon to be the victim of unnecessary surgery sans anesthetic.  Surrounded by all the trappings of a modern hospital, Burke isn't able to perceive the danger that's all around him.

This aura of creepiness is augmented by the Eastland Hospital sets, which lack the verisimilitude even of the sterile institutional corridors of the era, but still manage to be marginally interesting. Seemingly generic details such as the elevator banks seem stylized, as though the sets were designed and built by people who had never actually seen elevators work in real life.  The operating theater in which Steiner gloats over Quinn's helpless body has a strangely art-deco feel to it.

By contrast the lobby is cramped and uninteresting, and we end up with a hospital that gradually becomes more surreal as we delve farther into it.

I can't guarantee that the production designer spent a moment thinking about such things, of course -- in fact, I'd be willing to bet he didn't.  But it's these little touches - whether intentional or not - that make repeat viewings of such films worthwhile.

Synopsis: Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor) is conducting ground-breaking research in cryogenics. In a public demonstration, he lowers the body temperature of a patient until she is in a coma-like state. Five days later he brings her out of it, and after the procedure her chronic pain has diminished considerably.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mason tells his fiancee, nurse Judith Blair (Jo Ann Sayers) that his results are encouraging, but not what he had hoped. He reveals that most of his experiments are derived from the work of a mysterious Dr. Leon Kravaal (Boris Karloff), whose book on the subject of cryogenics hinted that he was in possession of a mysterious process that allowed the body to be completely frozen. Laboratory animals exposed to this process would completely recover from the freezing. Moreover, cancer cells in test animals disappeared after prolonged treatment, because the body's immune system was still working while the cancer cells were suspended. Mason is fascinated by these revelations, and would love to get more of the details of the procedures from Kravaal; but the scientist vanished ten years earlier.

The hospital administration disapproves of all the meddlesome publicity that Mason is generating and they force him to take a leave of absence. Seeing an opportunity to track Kravaal down, Mason and Blair drive up north to Kravaal's last known address. This turns out to be a spooky old house on a small island. The place had been abandoned since the disappearance of Kravaal, the county sheriff, county prosecutor, town doctor and two other townspeople.

Exploring the house, Dr. Mason and Judith discover a passage from the basement that leads to an abandoned laboratory, and beyond that, an icy underground cavern. In this cavern Dr. Kravaal is discovered. Using the specialized techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. He's astonished to find that he has been in suspended animation for ten years. Then he reveals that in a second chamber, behind the first, there are four bodies.

In a flashback sequence, Kravaal explains that the elderly Jasper Adams had come to him in hopes that frozen therapy might cure his cancer. Adams' nephew became suspicious, and the county prosecutor brought Kravaal in. In the prosecutor's office the town doctor avers that he had previously examined Adams, and it was clear the man's cancer was terminal. Kravaal scoffs at the doctor's hidebound pronouncements, but under duress he agrees to take the men to see Jasper Adams during his treatment.

Kravaal takes them, along with the county sheriff, to the island and the underground cavern. Seeing Adams' frozen body, the doctor declares him dead, and the sheriff places him under arrest. Kravaal uses a beaker of chemicals to render his captors unconscious, but in the process places everyone -- including himself -- in a state of suspended animation.

After relating this amazing story, Mason and Judith help Kravaal revive the others, all of whom are astonished that ten years have passed and that they have all probably been declared dead.

When Jasper Adams' loud-mouthed nephew destroys the formula used to put them in suspended animation, Kravaal kills him. He then tells the others that he must now reconstruct the formula, and he must use them all as his guinea pigs....

Comments: Hey, as long as we're looking at TV listings for this particular Saturday in 1971, let's check out the newspaper description of Horror Incorporated's second feature:

2:30 am - The Man With Nine Lives (1940) A doctor has perfected "frozen sleep". Boris Karloff and Roger Pryor. Channel 5.

This one is a bit perfunctory, isn't it?  It might as well read, "Blah, blah, blah, Boris Karloff".

And that's only appropriate.  Because if ever a movie lived up to the description "Blah, blah, blah, Boris Karloff", it would be  The Man With Nine Lives.  It starts with a reasonably intriguing premise, but squanders it on a never-ending parade of contrivances, the first of which is Dr. Mason's forced leave of absence.  We are told that the hospital is fed up with all the publicity that Mason's Nobel Prize-worthy research is generating. And as we all know, there's nothing hospitals resent more than being associated with newspaper headlines like "CURE FOR CANCER FOUND". 

How Dr. Kravaal stumbles upon his magical formula for frozen sleep is a humdinger: he mixes random chemicals  together in order to fool his would-be captors into thinking he's creating a magical formula.  And jeepers, whaddya know! It works!

  And don't even get me started on how Dr. Mason and his fiancee / nurse stumble upon Dr. Kravaal and his reluctant entourage, even though numerous searches by the authorities over the years have turned up nothing.

There's very little in this picture that's memorable, beyond the loony image of Roger Pryor piling ice cubes on top of his patients early on.  Pryor himself is too bland an actor to make an impression, and the other characters are too thinly-drawn to attract attention. 

Jo Ann Sayers might be a good actress, but it's difficult to tell - she is entirely surplus to requirements here, and her career as a Columbia contract player was relatively brief.  For someone presumably placed on the road to stardom her look is unusual, though not unpleasantly so.  She is thinner than most actresses of her era, with a very pointed nose and pronounced chin. She also seems to be fairly tall, an attribute that has ruined quite a few actress' careers.

The other supporting players are utterly generic, both in the script and on the screen. The only actor who stands out, really, is Karloff himself, but he struggles against a bland screenplay.  His Leon Kravaal is just a stock mad scientist, surprisingly unsympathetic without the tragic Jekyll-and-Hyde-ism that befell Dr. John Garth in Before I Hang, or the misfortunes endured by Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands.

Of course, what Dr. Kravaal does have going for him is a pointed goatee and a pair of owlish-looking glasses, an apparent attempt to give him a cool and remote demeanor.  Other than that, we have little reason to suspect he's a scientist, aside from the fact that he's extremely antisocial.   If Horror Incorporated has taught us anything, it's that most scientists are.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday, September 4, 1971: Cry of the Werewolf (1944) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris' son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal - apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter -- also named Marie LaTour -- has inherited her lycanthropy.
Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don't match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf. ...

Comments: In their indispensable reference work Universal Horrors, Brunas and Weaver make the interesting claim that Cry of the Werewolf was originally conceived as a sequel to the Bela Lugosi vehicle Return of the Vampire, which we saw just last week.  They maintain that early drafts of the script were entitled Bride of the Vampire, but that at some point the decision was make to rework the material into a werewolf picture.*

I'm tempted to say they make this assertion  while discussing 1943's Son of Dracula.  However, it's more accurate to say they make this assertion while conducting a drive-by on poor old Bela Lugosi.  

Look, don't get me wrong.  Universal Horrors is a delightful book.  It's both informative and entertaining.  But it's not perfect.  One of its quirks is an almost pathological hostility toward Lugosi.  No opportunity to ridicule Universal's first Dracula is ever missed.   In this case, the authors hint that Columbia, panic-stricken at the thought of having Lugosi star in the sequel to the (ahem, inexplicably money-making) Return of the Vampire, completely overhauled the project rather than risk allowing the hammy Hungarian to stink up another of their pictures. 

Such a notion might be tempting to those who find Lugosi's screen presence overbearing, but it's unfair. As I've asserted previously, Lugosi was a flawed actor of limited appeal, but he certainly wasn't without talent. His career was hobbled less by his acting than by a combination of short-sighted business decisions and bad luck.  After Dracula made him a star he tended to accept the highest-paying roles on offer, regardless of their merit**.  These were often relatively small "red-herring" roles that did little to keep him in the public eye, and convinced the studios that he was an overvalued commodity. Eventually  he was left scrambling for whatever kind of screen work he could get.  

But we're not here to discuss Bela Lugosi anyway, are we?  We're here to discuss Cry of the Werewolf, one of the few examples of an honest-to-peaches, straight-up-no-chaser horror film offered by Columbia in the mid 1940s.

While not up to the standards of Return of the Vampire, this picture aspires to the same sort of low-budget atmospherics as its predecessor and, obviously, the popular Universal thrillers of the time.

But the big difference between Columbia and Universal horror films is quite evident here.  Columbia didn't have a large staff dreaming up special effects and make-up for its horror pictures.  What would have been elaborate set pieces in Universal films are almost thrown away at Columbia. 

Let me show you what I mean.  Here's a crucial sequence featuring Marie LaTour, werewolf queen:

 Jan Spavero is told by Marie that he's going to sleep with the fishes...or the Gypsy equivalent thereof.

What?!? Marie wouldn't cast me aside like that after so many years of loyal service.   Would she?
 Frightened, he stumbles out of Marie's trailer and attempts to flee the Gypsy camp.
We go back to Marie LaTour, and the camera makes a very quick pan left to the shadow on the wall behind her...
....which immediately begins to change shape..... begins to shrink....
...collapsing into the shape of an animal...

...a wolf!  Awooooooooooooooo!

We see Spavero's feet stumbling through the woods....
Intercut with the werewolf's feet, inexorably pursuing....
The Gypsies in the camp sit impassively....
Looking up only momentarily when they hear Jan's screams come from the woods.

This sequence is interesting for how little we actually see.  No yak hair, no special make-up effects, no time-lapse photography.  Instead, the trickiest effects shots prove to be a moving shadow on the wall and a shot of a dog's feet running through the woods.  That points to a pretty meager effects budget, even by Columbia's standards.

The cast isn't particularly notable: Nina Foch was certainly the biggest name, having played a number of similarly aristocratic roles. Fritz Lieber was a fairly successful character actor who is perhaps best known today as the father of science fiction writer Fritz Lieber, Jr.  Osa Massen played a lot of evil Nazi temptresses during the war, and went on to star in Kurt Neumann's Rocketship X-M (1950).  John Abbot brought his dignified Shakespearean cadence to dozens of movies and countless TV shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 

Without question the weakest link in the cast is Stephen Crane, completely in over his head as good-natured doofus Bob.  The girls apparently go for Bob, in spite of the fact that he's as dull as library paste.  Crane wasn't exactly cast against type in that department, yet he still couldn't pull off the role.  Go figure.

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.

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 Park) 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: Hey, did tonight's werewolf movie put you on edge?  Would you like to unwind with a screwball comedy?  You've come to the right place.

Frankly, there isn't much to say about this little Arsenic and Old Lace knock-off that I haven't said before.  Karloff and Lorre seem to enjoy doing a bit of light-hearted comedy for a change; Miss Jeff Donnell seems to be every bit as solid and reliable as Winnie Slade, the character she plays; "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom seems at least plausible as a down-on-his luck salesman; and the story -- well, let's just forget about the story, shall we?

Truth is, the more you focus on the story, the less likely you are to enjoy yourself.  The screenwriters are painfully aware of this, and try to keep things moving quickly enough that the seams won't show.  It doesn't always work, but my advice would be to give them all the assistance you can.  

For example, when Frank Puglia shows up as a demented Italian P.O.W., take a moment to appreciate the man's career.  He was a bread-and-butter character actor who appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows, usually as a kindly priest or doctor, always as what the industry called "ethnic" characters -- Latino / Italian / Greek / etc.   Watching this movie, you can take him at face value: he's a hard-working actor earning a living. And that's a pretty good thing.

*Brunas, Michael, et al: Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931 - 1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 1990, pp 380-381.  I don't think bloggers ever cite book sources on the Internet, but I'm an old-fashioned sort of fellow and I'm doing it anyway.
**Exhibit A: The role of Professor Strang in the 12-chapter serial Whispering Shadows (1933)