Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday, April 17, 1971: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) / Pillow of Death (1945)

Synopsis: On a stormy night in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron are discussing Mary’s just-completed novel Frankenstein. Lord Byron marvels that the ladylike Mary could have penned such a ghoulish tale. He eagerly describes the plot of the story, and we see a recap of the original film. Lord Byron concludes by wondering what might have taken place after the monster was destroyed in the burning windmill.

Mary then tells the men that she has indeed devised a continuation of the story, and she begins to narrate a tale that begins where the 1931 movie ends.

As the flames of the windmill fire begin to die down, the pitchfork-bearing mob disperses. But the father of the young girl who drowned in the first film remains. He refuses to accept that the monster is dead until he sees its charred bones, and he begins to pick through the ruins to find them. The floor of the windmill gives out from under him and he falls into a flooded chamber below. The monster (Boris Karloff) appears nearby, evidently having been saved by the water in this subfloor, and the enraged creature drowns the man. The creature climbs up out of the ruins to find the man’s wife searching for her husband, and the monster kills her as well.

As the creature wanders the countryside, Henry (Colin Clive) recuperates at home. He is sorry for what he has done, but still gets that crazy gleam in his eye when he talks about the god-like power he had briefly harnessed. One night he is visited by Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), a “professor of philosophy” who was fired from Henry’s university "for knowing too much”.

Pretorius wishes to form an alliance with Henry in order to create a new race of artificially-created humans. Henry has the power to restore dead tissue to life, but Pretorius claims to have mastered an entirely different trick – he can create new life out of inert material. To demonstrate this he takes Henry to his home, where – in a very odd scene – he unveils a series of tiny people he has grown in glass jars.

Meanwhile, the public learns that the monster still lives. It is captured and hauled into the village, but it soon escapes, leaving a trail of destruction behind it. Later it happens upon the cottage of a blind hermit, who befriends the creature, teaching it to speak a little, and to appreciate the finer things in life – namely, smoking and drinking. But a couple of townsfolk come looking for the monster, and in the course of the monster’s escape the cottage is burned down.

Pretorious wants Henry to use his knowledge of reanimating cadavers in tandem with his own knowledge of building new tissue. His plan is to procure the body of a young woman and create for it a blank brain that Pretorius has constructed. With a female, the monster will be able to reproduce and start a new race. Henry is tempted by the possibilities, but racked with guilt and uncertainty.
The monster stumbles into a vast crypt just as it is being raided by Dr. Pretorious and his assistants. Pretorious is not afraid of the monster in the slightest, and offers it a drink and a cigar, which the monster greatly enjoys. He brings it back to Henry’s estate, knowing that if Pretorious cannot force Henry to bring the new woman to life , the monster can….

Comments: Few pictures from Universal's golden age of horror stand up as well to repeated viewing as  James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.  While its Grand Guignol sensibilities no longer hold the shock value they did in 1935, the morality play that lies at its center still packs a wallop.

It's rewarding to watch the movie carefully, because there is a significant thematic sleight-of-hand going on here.  In the first movie we met Henry Frankenstein in the worst possible light: he and Fritz were preparing to dig up a fresh corpse in a graveyard.  His moral transgressions were countless and long-standing,  and he had already made a devil's bargain in order to secure forbidden knowledge.

But in Bride of Frankenstein, we are asked to accept that Henry has been redeemed by the love of a good woman -- almost mystically redeemed, in fact.  Presumed dead, Henry is brought to the Frankenstein mansion, and it isn't until hearth angel Elizabeth touches him that his arm moves, recalling the initial stirrings of the monster in the first film.  The line between life and death, already hazy in Frankenstein, has become blurrier still.

We quickly learn that it's necessary for Henry to be born again; he has work to do.  He must earn our sympathies in order to make way for a new antagonist: the sinister Dr. Pretorious, who is less interested in revealing hidden knowledge than he is in kick-starting a new moral code, one in which he, rather than God, makes the rules.  That the new code requires the creation of a new species is entirely incidental.  It's clear that Pretorious would have been happy realigning the values of his own species.  Unfortunately for him, the society he favors -- one in which we are  "all devils -- no nonsense about angels and being good" lacks a significant claque of support among his fellow humans.  And Pretorious' pursuit of such a society seems to be what has really gotten him "booted" from his teaching post, and has left him friendless and without portfolio.  

But Pretorious can always make more friends, or at least grow them in glass jars, and losing his job has simply given him more time for mischief.  When Henry refuses to go where Pretorious leads, the solution is obvious: Elizabeth is held hostage, and the monster is pressed into service as hired muscle.  Henry -- oddly enough considering his resume --  is now presented to us as a victim, being made to do Pretorious' bidding entirely against his will in order to save the woman he loves.

It all seems rather unlikely, yet somehow it works. The movie was well-received by critics when it premiered four years after the original.  "Another astonishing chapter in the career of the Monster is being presented by Universal on the Roxy's screen," proclaimed the New York Times on May 11, 1935:

In "The Bride of Frankenstein," Boris Karloff comes again to terrify the children, frighten the women and play a jiggling tune upon masculine spines as the snarling, lumbering, pitiful Thing that a scientist formed from grave-snatched corpses and brought to life with the lightning.
So vividly are etched the memories of the Monster's first screen appearance that it seems scarcely possible that the original "Frankenstein" was shown on Broadway in December, 1931. Three and a half years was long to wait to learn whether the Monster died in the blazing tower where the end of "Frankenstein" left him. With this second chapter we know, of course, that he survived.
[...]In more ways than one, this is a changed Monster. At first, one must recall, he was pretty much of a thorough-going brute, a killer for the killing's sake. Now, possibly under the unfluence of Spring at Universal, he is slightly moonstruck, hungry for kindness and even—oh, perish the thought—for love. 

Well, anything's possible at the movies, right?

Pillow of Death

Synopsis: The Kincaids are an old-money family, and elderly Belle Kincaid (Clara Blandick) sees herself as the guardian of the family reputation. When niece Donna Kincaid (Brenda Joyce) begins working a lot of late hours with married attorney Wayne Fletcher (Lon Chaney, Jr.) she is scandalized, and demands that she quit her job.

Donna refuses. She doesn't care what her family thinks; she is in love with Fletcher, and knows that he is unhappy in his marriage. In fact, when he drops her off at the Kincaid mansion that night he tells her that he is going to have a "showdown" with his wife Vivian, who has recently fallen under the influence of a psychic named Julian Julian .

But when Fletcher returns home he finds the place swarming with police. His wife has been murdered -- smothered with a pillow. A pillow of death!

Police detective McCracken carries out a leisurely investigation, and though there's a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing at Fletcher, there are other suspects too. What about that table-tipping fake Julian, who is worming his way into the confidence of the Kincaid sisters? Or Bruce Malone (Bernard Thomas), the weaselly peeping Tom who is nursing an infatuation with Donna? Or sour old Belle Kincaid, who was the last person known to have seen Vivian alive? 

And as long as we're asking questions, what about the chain-rattling ghost heard in the attic? Or the secret passage in the house that even Donna doesn't know about? Or the voice Wayne keeps hearing -- the voice of his dead wife that keeps pleading with him to come back to the Fletcher crypt, from which her body has mysteriously disappeared?

Comments: You can't get much farther removed from The Bride of Frankenstein's sublime gothic atmosphere than  Pillow of Death, the sixth and final Inner Sanctum mystery.

Inner Sanctum films were quite pedestrian by horror film standards, toying with supernatural elements only when they could be used to spice up the standard-issue murder mystery plots.  Pillow of Death does some hand-waving toward the occult early on, as Julian Julian conducts a seance in the Kincaid home, and there's some talk about a ghost upstairs that turns out to be a raccoon.

Where Pillow of Death departs from the series norm is that the protagonist, Wayne Fletcher, turns out to have been the murderer after all, rather than an innocent man tormented by an overactive conscience.  Not only is Fletcher guilty, but  the ghostly voice of his wife is actually originating inside his own head;  he is barking mad to boot.  It's never made clear if Fletcher knew he was the murderer all along and was lying to Donna about it, or if he had been repressing the memories of his misdeeds.

You can't really blame Fletcher for being confused about what was going on.  After all, Vivian's body really did disappear.  It was stolen by Bruce Malone, who also habitually peeks in through the windows of the Kincaid mansion and enters at will through a secret passage, and yet is inexplicably rewarded by Donna's love and devotion in the final reel.  She apparently learns that the weaselly peeping Tom next door is always preferable to the debonair downtown lawyer.  Single ladies, take note.

Pillow of Death also departs from the other five Inner Sanctums by dispensing with the standard  opening, in which David Hoffman's unbilled head floats inside a crystal ball, trying to be spooky as it recites the following:
This is the Inner Sanctum....a strange fantastic world, controlled by a mass of living pulsating flesh: the mind.  It destroys... distorts.... creates monsters.... commits murder. Yes, even you, without knowing, can commit  -- murder!

For the record only four of the six Inner Sanctum mysteries have been broadcast to date; we have not yet seen Weird Woman (based on a Fritz Lieber novel) and Strange Confession, which features the always-entertaining  J. Carroll Naish as a philandering and double-crossing boss who pushes his harried employee toward -- murder!  Good times.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Interlude: Of Course I Want a Box of Monkey Hands

I've added The Bloggess to my list of recommended sites, even though a) she's an a-lister in the blogosphere and I tend to shy away from them; and b) she doesn't normally write about horror films (she doesn't normally write about anything*).

I have no evidence for this, but her off-beat sensibilities make me think that she'd have been a devout Horror Incorporated viewer, had God only seen fit to place her in the Twin Cities in the 1970s.

Here she is walking through a barn full of oddities, owned by the family of her best friend Laura:

Laura:  It’s not loaded.
Laura:  Huh.  So there are.
me:  There’s a box here that says “Monkey hands” on the outside.
Laura:  It probably has monkey hands in it.
Laura:  Do you want them?
me:  Do I want a box of monkey hands?  Is this a trick question?  Of course I want a box of monkey hands.  But I’m not going to take all your monkey hands.  I’ll just take two.
Laura:  OMG, take the box of monkey hands.  What am I going to do with monkey hands?
me:   What couldn’t you do with monkey hands?
Laura:  I…have no response for that.
me:  Okay, I’m taking these monkey hands on loan, but they’re yours when you need them.
Laura:  I’ve almost never had the need for monkey hands.
me:  It’s weird that we’re friends.
Laura:  Good weird, or bad wierd?
me:  Well, good weird for me.  I just got an unexpected box of monkey hands.
Laura:  Well then, it’s working out for everyone.
Seems to me you couldn't watch Horror Incorporated every week and not want a box full of monkey hands. So welcome aboard, Bloggess.
*There's a joke in there somewhere, but damned if I can find it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Saturday, April 10, 1971: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) / She-Wolf of London (1946)

Synopsis: Two grave-robbers enter the family crypt of the wealthy Talbot family, looking for an expensive watch and ring left on the body of young Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the titular Wolf Man. As the full Moon peeks through the windows, the thieves are puzzled to find Talbot's body covered with wolfsbane. They clear it off and begin searching for the ring. Suddenly, a hand reaches up from the coffin to grab one of the unfortunate thieves....

Later, a Cardiff policeman finds a man lying unconscious on the street in the dead of night, the apparent victim of an assault. At the hospital the next day, Dr. Mannering is shocked to discover that his patient -- on whom he had just operated hours earlier -- is now conscious and talking. The man says he is Lawrence Talbot and does not know how he came to be in Cardiff. Checking Talbot's story, the police discover that Lawrence died four years earlier.

That night, the full Moon rises over the hospital, and Lawrence changes into a werewolf. He takes to the streets of Cardiff, attacking a policeman. The next morning, Talbot declares that he committed a murder during the night and asks for the police. Thinking the man has lost his marbles, Dr. Mannering has him put in a straitjacket. He then goes with the local chief of police to the Talbot family crypt, trying to determine if the man in his hospital room is really Talbot; sure enough, they find the coffin empty.

When he returns to Cardiff he finds that Talbot has somehow shredded the straitjacket with his teeth and escaped.

After a long search Talbot finally catches up with the Gypsy camp of Maleva. Talbot knows that death is the only way he can be free of the curse, but Maleva tells him the only chance he has to die is to visit the guy who has harnessed the powers of life and death: the notorious Dr. Frankenstein.

The two travel by horse-drawn wagon to Vasaria, the hometown of Dr. Frankenstein.
Disappointed to find that Dr. Frankenstein is long dead, Talbot and Maleva decide to look around the ruins of the castle in hopes of finding Dr. Frankenstein's diary, which purportedly holds "the secrets of life and death".

Alas, a full Moon rises (again), Talbot turns into the Wolf Man (again), wreaks a good deal of havoc, falls through an opening near the castle and awakens (as Talbot again) in an icy underground chamber adjacent to the castle, where he finds Frankenstein's monster, frozen like a TV dinner....

Comments:  By modern standards, the horror films of the 1940s unfolded at what we might call a leisurely pace.  Audiences had long been trained to expect movies to build slowly, with the big action set-pieces saved until the finale.*  This was true even in best-known pictures of the time, including 1941's The Wolf Man.  

To its great credit,  Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man leaps out of the gate with admirable speed.  The movie begins at the cemetery in Lanwelly, with two thieves breaking into the Talbot family crypt to steal the gold ring and money known to be on the body of the late Lawrence Talbot.  "It's a sin to bury money," reasons one of the thieves nervously, "when it can help people."

He asks his partner in crime what they will find inside the coffin.  "Just bones," the older thief assures him, "and an empty skull".  But that isn't what they find.  Beneath a layer of wolfsbane is young Talbot, his body perfectly preserved -- and now the light of the full Moon is shining through the windows onto his face.

For some reason this doesn't strike the thieves as odd, and they work to pull the gold ring off Larry Talbot's finger.  But the brains of the outfit is more than a little surprised when Talbot's hand seizes his wrist, and he screams to his compatriot for help.  But the other thief panics and runs for his life.

The scene shifts to Cardiff, where a cop walking the beat finds a man sprawled on the pavement.  Thinking it's a drunk, the cop tries to rouse him, but when he shines his flashlight on the man's face he sees an ugly cut on the guy's forehead.

This scene leads directly to St. Mary's Hospital, where the injured man claims to be the late Lawrence Talbot.  The mystery of who he is and how he came to be in Cardiff then propels the movie forward until the next full Moon, when the usual lycanthopic hijinks ensue.  The events that propel the plot forward are much stronger than those in The Wolf Man or indeed any of the Universal horror films of the era**

Curt Siodmak's screenplay is expertly paced and in spite of some glaring plot holes (why would Dr. Mannering follow Talbot all the way to Vasaria?) it's really one of the best horror scripts of the 1940s.  Siodmak, who was by all accounts a crass and hackish sort of fellow, did remarkably good work during this period of his career.  Perhaps his personal best was the 1942 novel Donovan's Brain, which was adapted as a radio play and, a decade later, as a well-regarded film.  Unfortunately, Siodmak would  essentially recycle the same story for the rest of his career.

She-Wolf of London

Synopsis: Young Phyllis Allenby (June Lockhart) is preparing for her marriage to attorney Barry Lanfield (Don Porter). Barry is the perfect candidate for marriage: handsome, patient, understanding, and (last but not least) wealthy. But Phyllis is deeply troubled, because a bizarre series of murders has been taking place in the park near the Allenby estate. The method of the killings suggest an animal attack, and Phyllis mutters fearfully about a return of the "Allenby Curse".

Meanwhile, Phyllis' cousin Carol Winthrop (Jan Wiley) is caught by her mother, Martha Winthrop (Sara Haden) trying to send a letter to a boyfriend across town. Martha warns Carol that she can never have anything to do with young Dwight Severn (Martin Kosleck), reminding her that Dwight is penniless.  She reveals something that no one else seems to know -- that neither she nor Carol is related by blood to Phyllis Allenby.  Martha has been the family housekeeper for decades,  and it is now taken on faith that she and Carol are members of the family.

Now that Phyllis is the sole remaining heir of the Allenby estate, Martha and Carol are in a precarious position, at risk of losing everything -- if Phyllis marries. But if Carol were to marry Lanfield instead, matters would improve considerably for both Carol and Martha.

Unorthodox Detective Latham of Scotland Yard is convinced that the park murders are the work of a werewolf, a theory rejected by hidebound Inspector Pierce (Dennis Hoey). In fact, the only other person who seems to buy into the werewolf theory is Phyllis herself, who explains to Aunt Martha that the Allenby Curse dooms members of her family to turn into ravenous wolves, an affliction for which there is no cure.

Aunt Martha tries to convince Phyllis that it's all in her head, but Phyllis knows that each morning her slippers are caked with mud, her dress sodden and torn, and her hands covered with blood.
Fearful of the creature that she has become, she breaks off her engagement with Barry.  But Barry refuses to believe in the curse, or in Phyllis' guilt, and he is determined to unmask the real she-wolf of London....

Comments: When I was seven years old I made the mistake of asking my father to tell me a ghost story.  Dad had been trained as a biologist and didn't think much of ghost stories.  To him the natural world was marvelous enough; it did not need to be artificially sweetened with ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and other assorted monsters.  Nevertheless, he gave it a try.

The ghost story he told me was about a boy, much like me, who accepted a dare from his friends to enter a spooky old house that was said to be haunted.   Creeping into the house, the boy saw a rocking chair move back and forth by itself.  He heard evil cackles that seemed to come from all around him. He heard the wooden steps creak as though some invisible creature were treading up and down the staircase.

But the boy was not frightened of these things, because he was lucky enough to have a father who'd been trained as a biologist.   Using his reason and intellect, as his father had taught him, the boy discovered that the owner of the house was trying to keep nosy kids away by employing simple tricks: the rocking chair was made to move by a thin wire attached to an electric motor; the steps were made to creak by small hydraulic presses under the staircase, and the evil laughter was recorded and amplified through the house by tiny speakers that were hidden from view.

I felt a bit cheated by this story, but in time I learned this was a venerable brand of storytelling, the "explained-away" horror tale.  Conventional horror stories are about the loss of control, the weakness of reason in the face of the terrifying and the inexplicable.  In contrast, explained-away tales are meant to reassure.  They allow you a brief thrill of fear that is fully dissipated by the end, so that you can laugh and say, now wasn't that silly?  There wasn't anything to be afraid of after all.  Such stories insist that the rational mind can conquer anything, and the only thing to fear is -- quite literally -- fear itself.

As Liz Kingsley has pointed out, in the early days of cinema horror films routinely utilized explained-away endings.  In fact it was Universal's string of horror hits in the early 1930s -- Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, et al -- that changed that forever.  It's easy to think of those early Universal efforts as tame, but they weren't seen that way at the time.  Frankenstein in particular was regarded as so gruesome that some municipalities wouldn't allow it to be shown without extensive (unauthorized) cuts.  

But such efforts at censorship were bound to fail, because once a door is opened, it's very difficult to close it again. It quickly became clear that audiences didn't want to be reassured.  They wanted to be scared. They wanted the full monty, metaphorically speaking, and as long as audiences were willing to pay, the studios were determined to give it to them.

So it is somewhat ironic that She-Wolf of London, coming as it did at the end of Universal's golden age of horror films, resorted to an explained-away ending essentially for the sake of novelty.***  And that novelty was urgently needed, too, because the public's appetite for horror films had dwindled considerably by 1946.  The lavish productions of the 1930s had long since gone by the boards, and even the low-budget horror films weren't as profitable as they had been.  She-Wolf of London would have been ample evidence -- for anyone looking for such evidence at the time -- that Universal had pretty much given up on the horror game.

After all, in spite of its horror-film trappings, it ultimately tries to be the sort of psychological thriller that was then in vogue.  But She-Wolf of London simply doesn't exude the tense and mysterious atmosphere of Gaslight or Cat People.   It is altogether too glib and too rushed.  Its stars are too lightweight to convey the subtext that's always present in a psychological thriller (interestingly, in interviews June Lockhart has expressed pride in the convincing British accent she brought to her character, but no such accent is evident when watching the film).  Don Porter, whom we've seen in Night Monster, is far too bland to engage our interest.  

Dwight Babcock supplied the story; he was capable of better, having already received story credit for the superior House of Horrors, which had been released only a couple of months earlier.  Jean Yarbrough, who directed that artist-gone-wrong film, directed this one as well.  Apparently, the only attempt he made to convey psychological menace was to occasionally tilt the camera.  That was as artsy as he got.

*In the summer of 1977 I saw the movie Star Wars at the Mann Theater on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.  I came in a few minutes late and was surprised to walk in on an epic firefight between the rebels and the Imperial forces on board Princess Leia's ship.  Because the unwritten rules of cinema heretofore dictated that the most exciting bits were saved for last, I assumed that this had to be the end of the movie, not the beginning.    It's difficult today to overstate the impact Star Wars had back then: to kids my age, it was as though we'd never seen a movie before; and indeed the rules of genre cinema were being re-written before our very eyes.

**With the possible exception of the lucky prison beak the starts House of Frankenstein - though the narrative tension isn't sustained nearly as well in that opus.

***Curt Siodmak, who had made a good living writing straight-up horror films, went this route in the 1956 thriller Curucu, Beast of the Amazon

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.