Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saturday, May 1, 1971: The Black Cat (1934) / The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Synopsis: Mystery writer Peter Allison (David Manners) and his newly-minted wife Joan (Julie Bishop) are honeymooning in eastern Europe. On a train trip east, they are unexpectedly asked to share their compartment with a stranger, Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Bela Lugosi). Werdegast tells them that he had been in a Russian prison camp until recently, but now he is on his way to visit an old friend. The man seems haunted by Joan's beauty, telling her that she reminds him of his own late wife.

At their destination, Werdegast and the Allisons agree to share a taxi. The driver entertains the newlyweds by telling them that the area they are driving past was the site of an old fortress, where 10,000 men died in a fierce battle with the Russians during the Great War. To the couple this is mildly interesting history, but Werdegast stares out the window darkly, and it is clear that for him this story is all too personal.

Suddenly part of the rain-washed road gives way and the taxi plunges down an embankment. The driver is killed in the crash, and Joan is knocked unconscious. Werdegast, his manservant and Peter take her to the futuristic house built on the ruins of the old fortress.

This is the house built by Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), one of the world's greatest architects and the man whom Werdegast has traveled so far to visit. Poelzig had once commanded the fortress the house was built upon, and it quickly becomes clear that Werdegast's visit is not entirely a social call. During the war, Poelzig had allowed his men to be taken captive by the Russians in exchange for his own safe passage. And Poelzig had taken Werdegast's wife Karin with him. He had told her that Werdegast had been killed so that he could marry her and raise Werdegast's daughter as his own.

Wedegast treats Joan's injuries, telling Peter that she will be all right after a good night's sleep. He gives her a sedative. Peter and Werdegast are talking to Poelzig when Werdegast sees a black cat. Werdegast becomes hysterical and kills it. Poelzig explains to Peter that Werdegast has always suffered from a debilitating fear of cats.

Joan comes downstairs. She seems different than before -- more somber and sharp-eyed. When Peter takes her back upstairs she kisses him hungrily. Wedegast explains that the narcotic he has given Joan is known to cause incidents of expanded perception, even second sight.

Later that night, Poelzig tells Werdegast he will take him to Karin. The two go into the lower levels of the house, which are built upon the old fortress ruins. Poelzig leads him to a glass case, where Karin is kept. Poelzig tells him that she died of pneumonia shortly after the war. But he has kept her body perfectly preserved so that he may always look upon her beauty. The child, he tells Werdegast, died about the same time.

Enraged, Werdegast draws a pistol, but Poelzig mocks him for his "childish" and "melodramatic" impulses. Realizing that this isn't yet the proper time to exact revenge, Werdegast stands down.

Returning to his bedroom, Poelzig tells the woman lying next to him that he wants her to remain hidden from the visitors in the house. It is only then that we see the woman looks exactly like Karin -- she is, in fact, Werdegast's long-lost daughter....

Comments:  This grim tale of torment and revenge is deeply weird, as you might expect from reading the synopsis, but not so unconventional as to throw out all the requirements of Hollywood entertainment.   Karloff and Lugosi are clearly committed to each other’s destruction, and we know their story isn’t going to end happily.  So we are given a pair of American lovebirds as ostensible protagonists, with the knowledge that no matter what happens to anyone else, these two will be okay.

In many ways Poelzig and Werdegast are stand-ins for the exhausted European nations that fought the Great War: they are, as Poelzig says, "the living dead", their bodies refusing to quit long after the horrors of war have broken their souls. For all the death and destruction they have witnessed, they know there won't really be peace until they have destroyed one another completely.

David Manners’ Peter Allison introduces himself as “America’s greatest writer of unimportant books” and this is an important admission.  He is very much a European’s idea of an American, circa 1935:  callow, good-natured, and ultimately frivolous.  Allison hails from a country that escaped the Great War unscathed, and he and his wife, in their ignorance, treat the battlefields they pass as interesting scenery.  They are completely unable to sense the roiling emotions all around them.   Nor do they suspect that some of the war’s casualties are still alive, and still plotting one another’s destruction.

The madness of Werdegast and Poelzig is masked for a time by their unfailing good manners; but Poelzig gives himself away almost before we meet him.  The truth is, no sane man would build his house upon the ruins of such a dark chapter in history – his own personal history as well as that of his country.  That the fortress was also the place where he betrayed the thousands of men under his command only makes his madness more vivid.  Monomania is a convenient tip-off to insanity, and you don't get more monomaniacal than building your house on a blood-drenched battlefield and keeping your friend's dead wife in a glass trophy case.

For his part, Werdegast is so hollowed out he lives for nothing but revenge.  His two crippling bouts of ailurophobia show the extent to which his psyche has been corroded.  The man who emerged from the Russian prison camp isn’t the same man who went in; and we can't blame him for rejecting the notion that living well is the best revenge.  Nope, Dr. Werdegast wants Poelzig's scalp and is willing to pay for it with his life. But in spite of fifteen years of plotting, the best plan he can come up with is knocking on Poelzig's door and demanding answers.

In fact, for all their sinister mugging, neither Weredegast nor Poelzig seem to have much idea what they're planning to do next.  Poelzig's designs on Joan as a human sacrifice aren't very well thought-out, and Weredegast's decision to flay Poelzig alive seems rather spur-of-the-moment as well.   Sacrificing people to the Devil and skinning your enemies alive are important tasks, after all;  not the sort of things that should be undertaken willy-nilly.

The Invisible Man Returns

Synopsis: At the Radcliffe family estate, a grim vigil is being kept for young Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price), who has been convicted of the murder of his brother Michael. The family is certain that Geoffrey is innocent; nevertheless he has been convicted of the crime and is sentenced to be hanged at 8:00 am.

Geoffrey's cousin Richard Cobb (Cedric Hardwicke) is trying to console Geoffrey's fiance Helen (Nan Grey) but she is despondent until the arrival of Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton). Learning that Cobb's last-ditch appeal for a reprieve has failed, Griffin hurries to the prison to meet Radcliffe one last time.

Shortly after Griffin's visit, Radcliffe mysteriously disappears from his cell, even though it is closely guarded. The prison officials are baffled, but as soon as Inspector Sampson (Cecil Kellaway) of Scotland Yard hears the name Frank Griffin, he is certain he knows what has happened.

An invisible Geoffrey moves through the woods some distance from the prison, finding a suitcase that has been left for him. He pulls clothing from it and proceeds to a safe house arranged by Frank Griffin.

Visiting the lab on the grounds of the Radcliffe family's coal mine, Sampson shows Griffin a police file of his brother, John Griffin, who nine years earlier formulated a chemical that could turn a man invisible, and then tested it on himself with disastrous results. But Griffin insists he has nothing to do with his brother's work.

Reunited with Helen at the safe house, Radcliffe rests for a while. But the house owners's dog barks ceaselessly, attracting the attention of the police, and Radcliffe is forced to flee.

Discovering that hapless mine employee Willy Spears (Alan Napier) has suddenly been promoted makes Radcliffe suspicious, especially when Spears tells Griffin that the lab will soon be shut down. Radcliffe uses his power of invisibility to track down the ones who framed him for murder, while Griffin desperately seeks an antidote to the invisibility drug -- knowing that if he fails, Radcliffe will go insane....

Comments: Universal got a lot of mileage out of its various horror franchises: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy each kicked out a number of profitable sequels.  Oddly, The Invisible Man didn't prove to be quite as durable.  Tonight's movie, The Invisible Man Returns, was the first and really the only decent follow-up.  The Invisible Man's Revenge, The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were all misfires of one kind or another.

The problem seems to be that once the protagonists turn invisible, their story options narrow considerably; the story can either focus on the invisible protagonist's hijinks (creeping around like a ghost, listening in on private conversations, or smashing things like a poltergeist), or on the authorities' efforts to locate and detain their quarry.

But hunting an invisible man can remain suspenseful for only so long.  And the poltergeist route, as we've seen, gets tiresome rather quickly -- particularly in Invisible Agent, where the thick-headed hero succeeds not because he's clever, or even because he's invisible, but because the Nazis he's fighting are an uncommonly dim-witted and cowardly bunch.

That The Invisible Man Returns succeeds at all is largely due to its brisk pace and clever screenplay, which relies less on the invisibility gimmick than it does on a simple mystery story: who framed Geoffrey Radcliffe, and why? 

John Sutton's Frank Griffin connects us to the events of the first film, but Sutton himself is secondary to the action.  Nan Grey gets a good deal more to do than most female leads of the time (certainly more than the dismal Gloria Stuart in the first film) and her performance is uncommonly intelligent, as we see her constantly trying to suss out Geoffrey's erratic mental state.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who famously disliked appearing in genre pictures, is nevertheless splendid here.  His Richard Cobbe is a smooth and reassuring presence throughout the early part of the picture; we trust him implicitly, and when his betrayal becomes clear it adds enormous impact to the final act.

Watching Vincent Price in this film makes me empathize with casting directors in the early 1940s.  It was clear that Price was an uncommon talent, yet finding the right roles for him must have been extraordinarily difficult.  He clearly wasn't cut out to be a romantic lead, yet he was in some ways too warm and sympathetic to play a conventional bad guy. Early in his career he was often cast as a character who seemed   pleasant on the surface, but who proved to be hiding a sinister agenda (we're clearly supposed to wonder which way he would fall in The Invisible Man Returns, and Shock (1946) makes exquisite use of Price's warm yet vaguely unsettling demeanor).  In time this dilemma would be addressed by constructing the sort of hybrid character that Price specialized in playing: the grimly amused owner of an existential spookhouse, the same sort of character that Lugosi tried unsuccessfully to play in The Raven--  and one can only imagine the sinister delight that Price would have brought to that role.

The Invisible Man Returns is a splendid second feature for Horror Incorporated, jumping quickly out the gate and holding our attention right away.  That's important for the viewer watching at 1:30 a.m., wondering whether to stick with the show or turn in for the night.  It's easy to imagine a viewer seeing the first few minutes of this movie and deciding to watch just a little longer.  In the days before it was possible to time-shift programs, such decisions were important to a show's ratings, and this lively little programmer would be a good choice for the second feature slot.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday, April 24, 1971: Son of Dracula (1943) / The Invisible Man (1933)

Synopsis: At the Caldwell plantation in Louisiana, a huge celebration has been prepared for the arrival of a Hungarian nobleman named Count Alucard. He has been invited by Kay, one of Colonel Caldwell's two daughters.

Kay, we are told, has been interested in the occult for some time. Now she is acting strangely and her fiance, Frank, can't fathom why. When the mysterious Count arrives, weird things start to happen. Col. Caldwell dies under mysterious circumstances. The will he drafted shortly before his death leaves all of the money to sister Claire, and only the plantation to Kay -- but strangely, Kay seems perfectly satisfied with this arrangement.

That night, Kay and Alucard roust the justice of the peace out of bed and insist on being married immediately.

Frank, believing that Kay has fallen into the orbit of a con man, confronts Alucard with a revolver, but when he fires the bullets pass through the Count, killing Kay, who was standing behind him. Confused an distraught, Frank goes to see Dr. Brewster, who tells him he will look into the matter. But when Brewster visits Black Oaks he finds Kay very much alive, albeit a little spooky.

By the time Brewster returns home he finds that Frank has turned himself in to the sheriff.  Brewster insists that the whole thing is a mistake; he saw Kay late the previous evening, after Frank came to him with the story of the murder. But when the Sheriff searches the estate he finds Kay's body and, sure enough, it's thoroughly dead.

Now under suspicion as an accessory to murder, Brewster consults with Professor Lazlo, an expert on the occult. With Lazlo's help Brewster begins to realize that Count Alucard is in fact Count Dracula, who has left his depleted homelands of Transylvania for fresh hunting grounds in America.  Meanwhile, in his jail cell, Frank is visited by Kay, who tells him she doesn't love Alucard, but has only been using him. Now that she is one of the undead, she can turn Frank into a vampire as well, and the two of them can destroy Alucard and begin their own immortal reign of terror....

Comments: Robert Siodmak's first directorial assignment for Universal was a relatively undistinguished one, but even so I was a little unfair when I wrote about it previously.  Son of Dracula is quite an entertaining movie, once you set aside the film's two glaring imperfections.

The first, of course, is the presence of Lon Chaney, Jr as Dracula.  Brunas and Weaver claim that Universal was trying to build Chaney into a bankable horror-movie star by systematically embedding him in all of their big franchises (by the time Son of Dracula premiered on November 5, 1943, Chaney had already played the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein's monster).    It's a reasonable explanation, or at least not an unreasonable one, and perhaps on paper he seemed like a good choice.  In practice, meh, not so much.

 His hulking screen presence works against him, though that in itself isn't fatal to his performance.  His voice is problematic as well, though he manages to smooth out his blunt midwestern delivery somewhat.  The real trouble with his performance, I think, is in his body language.  Dracula is, after all, a nobleman as well as a gentleman, but Chaney never moves like one or gestures like one.  He seems awkward, flat-footed, never comfortable in the fancy clothes he is wearing.  So he never convinces us that he's Dracula, even when he turns into a bat in front of our very eyes.*

But Universal could do worse, and they did: the role would next go to marble-mouthed ham John Carradine.  So perhaps it's time to quit pillorying poor Lon Chaney and move on.

The second strike against this movie is the absurd notion that Dracula can evade detection by spelling his name backwards.   Just about everyone sees through this one right away; he might as well have introduced himself as Dr. Acula.  If he was looking for an anagram of his name, he might have tried harder, though I admit that Nat Cuduralco or Toucan LaCrud might have come off as a bit eccentric.

Previously I'd complained about the lack of a clear protagonist in this movie: Alucard is a non-starter in that category. Kay is prominently featured early on, then Frank, then Dr. Brewster; and finally Dr. Lazlo.  It seemed to work a bit better seeing it again, but the structure still strikes me as quite odd.  Perhaps it would have been smarter to have more of the story told from Kay's perspective, rather than pushing her into the background in favor of Brewster in the second act.

The poster above is clearly trying to sell Kay as the protagonist, though if Universal wanted to go that route  (TEMPTRESS OF TERROR!  A Vampire's Bride -- With Blood On Her Lips!) shouldn't they have gone with the title Bride of Dracula?  Admittedly the poster we're seeing here is from a re-release, but still.  There's nothing in the movie that suggests Alucard is the son of Dracula anyway, and Bride of Dracula would have been a helpful title; it would have let the audience know where to focus their attention.

Interestingly, this is Lon Chaney Jr.'s fourth appearance in a row on Horror Incorporated.  I am not sure if this is a record (I suspect it isn't) but it would be interesting to find out.   Perhaps at some point in the future I'll pull together some stats of highest number of consecutive appearances, and highest number of appearances total.

My guess is that Evelyn Ankers will sweep all categories.  But we'll see.

The Invisible Man

Synopsis: A stranger walks along a country road into the small English village of Iping. The man wears a coat and hat to protect himself from the late winter snow, but he also wears tinted goggles and his head is wrapped in bandages.

He enters an inn and rents a room. There he works feverishly on some sort of medical experiment.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cranley (William Travers) , his daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart) and his assistant Kemp (William Harrigan) are trying to understand what has become of Dr. Cranley's underling, Jack Griffin. Griffin had been experimenting on his own with a dangerous chemical called monocaine, a substance which, when injected into animals, bleaches them white -- and drives them mad.

Back at the inn, a crazed and paranoid Griffin causes havoc whenever he is disturbed, and he is soon ordered to vacate the premises.

Refusing to do so, a group of townsfolk and the local police attempt to evict him. Griffin begins removing the bandages on his head -- revealing himself (or perhaps not revealing himself) to be an invisible man. Causing considerable property damage and bodily harm, he removes the rest of his clothing and flees the scene.

At first, the people of Iping are held up as laughingstocks by the police and the media; but soon enough the reports of an invisible man on a rampage are confirmed.

That evening Kemp is visited at home by Griffin, who tells him that he had indeed discovered a monocaine derivative that causes complete invisibility. However, Griffin can't reverse the process and he wants to use Kemps's laboratory to work on a solution.

But Griffin has more than a simple problem of chemistry on his mind. He has clearly been driven mad by his formula, and when he isn't imagining how he can "make the world grovel" at his feet, he is delighting in the chaos and destruction an invisible man can cause...

Comments:  Okay, I'll admit I had previously judged Son of Dracula too harshly.  I tend to have strong opinions, and I try to be open to new evidence even though I don't always succeed.  But what a treat we have for the second feature. The Invisible Man works as well as the day it was released.  Crackling dialogue, special effects that still hold up well, a towering lead performance, and a story that actually improves upon the novel it was based on.  

It was a smash hit when it premiered on November 18, 1933. "Photographic magic abounds in the production, the work being even more startling than was that of Douglas Fairbanks's old picture The Thief of Bagdad", wrote the Times' film critic Mordaunt Hall.   "The story makes such superb cinematic material that one wonders that Hollywood did not film it sooner. Now that it has been done, it is a remarkable achievement."

James Whale's original Frankenstein did not capture the director's wicked sense of humor, but this one does.  And The Invisible Man benefits greatly from the contributions of screenwriter R.C. Sheriff, who also wrote The Dam Busters, one of the best war movies ever produced.

It's hard to even talk about the movie without considering the performance of Claude Rains, who vividly portrays the mad scientist who is, as the opening credits call him, "The Invisible One".  It's difficult to imagine how the movie would have worked with another actor in the lead; Rains brings such authority and urgency to his largely vocal performance that he winds up carrying a good deal of it on his own.  No actor of the time could have equaled that performance; even Karloff, who had been briefly considered, was not up to the task -- he was primarily a physical actor, and his vocal range would not have been impressive enough to pull it off** . 

Rains' performance is even more impressive when you consider that the actors he worked with -- especially Gloria Stuart and William Harrigan -- were hapless examples of Hollywood cinema of the early 1930s: stuffy, stagebound and dull.   In spite of this, the movie clips along nicely, and nothing seems superfluous.  It's one of the best movies of its era, one that simply improves on repeated viewing.  

*This was, by the way, the first time that particular trick had been shown on screen.

**However, had the movie been made five years later, one could easily imagine Orson Welles playing the role of Griffin.