Monday, March 26, 2012

Saturday, July 3, 1971: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Note: Because of a 12:30 start, only one movie is featured on tonight's Horror Incorporated.

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: Invasion of the Body Snatchers is Horror Incorporated's first film from outside the Shock! television package, as well as its first film from the 1950s.

And no matter how you slice it, it's one hell of a movie -- in every way a superbly-crafted thriller, building suspense steadily throughout.  Director Don Siegel sells the unlikely premise by introducing us to a perfectly ordinary American town and adding strange events so gradually that at first we hardly notice them.

That town, the fictional Santa Mira, is vividly presented to us as an ideal slice of America, an oasis from the cares of the world.  Its inhabitants are uniformly warm and decent people.   In this we see the hand of Jack Finney, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based.  While the screenplay stripped down and reworked Finney's narrative, the heart and humanity is still here.

Humanity, and the imminent threat of its extinction, is of course what makes the movie go; but the whole thing would have collapsed if we were given protagonists we didn't care for.  Fortunately Miles Bennell is carefully rendered: as portrayed by Kevin McCarthy he is friendly, good-natured and eminently likable.  We get the impression that Miles became a doctor not out of sense of overweening ambition but because helping others is something that comes naturally to him. In an unusual touch for a movie of this era, his sense of humor is on display from the beginning of the film, but it's gentle, never coming at the expense of others.  "Maybe I clown around too much," he says to Becky Driscoll at one point, but it's clear that she doesn't think so.  There is something touching about watching these two reconnecting in their own small town, unaware that the orderly world they inhabit is about to be turned upside down.

Becky is less clearly drawn (as is often the case with women characters, even today) but her innate gentleness and decency is vividly shown.  Dana Wynter does well with the relatively few scenes she is featured in, though her British accent is distracting.

The decision to set the story in Santa Mira was an important one, because in a small town anonymity is impossible to maintain, and trust is the most important currency.  Suddenly Miles and Becky can't walk openly in the streets because they are known by everyone and can trust no one.  The invaders have turned all the advantages of small-town life against them, and this ratchets up the feeling of isolation and dread that the protagonists feel.

The fact that Miles and Becky are both divorced is an unusual detail for a movie of this era, and it seems to have been added for reasons other than simple verisimilitude.  Rather, it greatly heightens the emotional argument that the film is making: that pain and failure are parts of even the best-lived lives.  What the invaders seek to impose is a new and perhaps more sensible order, one in which the futile triumphs and follies of human existence are smoothed over.

When Miles protests that the love he feels for Becky would cease to exist, he's confronted with a hard truth.  "You've been in love before," the pseudo-Jack says to Miles.  "It didn't last.  It never does."  While this argument doesn't win us over, it gives us an uncomfortable sense of how the invaders see us: as a feckless and volatile species, endlessly engaged in a chase for things that can't be attained.

By all accounts Don Siegel was quite pleased with this film, and rightfully so.  It's the director's best work, better even than Dirty Harry (1971), a very different movie with a similar emotional hook.  Harry, after all, was surrounded by "pod people" -- those so emotionally dead inside that they refused to even acknowledge -- let alone do anything about -- the disintegrating world around them.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saturday, June 26, 1971: Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932) / Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik. Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik's ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet. Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he'll send her a new one. Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.

But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.
Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla's blood, with the stated intention of finding out the "true connection" between humans and apes. But the blood of prostitutes is "dirty", according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human - ape kinship....

Comments: The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are justifiably famous, but they tend to be long on atmosphere and short on plot. For this reason, films based upon them take plenty of liberties. We’ve already seen what Hollywood did with The Raven and The Black Cat; and tonight we get to see what they make of “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”.

Like a lot of adaptations this one comes off better if you’ve never read the story it’s based upon. Understandably, a lot of changes had to be made in translation. But this adaptation is particularly distressing because it throws out everything that made the short story interesting and memorable.

That story – widely credited as the first detective tale – was published in 1841. It describes how a brilliant, penniless young man named C. Auguste Dupin solves a sensational double homicide that has baffled the Paris police department. The circumstances surrounding the murders are what we would describe today as a classic “locked-room” mystery: two women are found dead in their home, one nearly decapitated and the other beaten and strangled, her body pushed up the chimney by an enormously strong assailant. The door is locked from the inside, and the only windows the killer could have escaped from are nailed shut, also from the inside.

Dupin solves the mystery simply by applying his keen, disciplined mind to the problem, identifying and rejecting irrelevant clues and logically working his way through the facts until he arrives at the correct solution. That an amateur easily, almost effortlessly, solves this “insoluble” mystery is one thing. That he does so basically as a lark is quite another, and it makes C. August Dupin one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in literature.

But for the screen adaptation, the writers felt it was necessary to dismantle the elaborate puzzle-box that Poe had constructed and sand down the rough edges from their protagonist. Camille L’Espanayle is no longer one of the two murder victims. She has been pulled from the chimney, brought back to life, and transformed into Dupin’s girlfriend. Dupin (inexplicably renamed Pierre) is now a poor medical student, rather than an eccentric bohemian.

And the screenwriters, needing an antagonist, dreamed up a character named Dr. Mirakle, played with scenery-chewing zest by Bela Lugosi, an actor who was still basking in the success of the previous year's Dracula. Mirakle's motivations are shaky throughout -- he seems to find Camille herself alluring, yet also wants her blood for his experiments proving human-ape kinship. This all figures (or is supposed to figure, somehow) into his theories of evolution. That Darwin's On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859 is apparently ignored. And why not? Mirakle's motive doesn't make sense anyway.

Lugosi is at least amusing as Dr. Mirakle; the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the other principles. Leon Waycoff's Dupin is an insufferable and ineffectual dullard, only a pale shadow of Poe's creation. Diminutive leading lady Sidney Fox is certainly cute, but sweetness seems to be the only quality she can project.
As for Erik the gorilla, we get a man in a suit for the distant shots, and a chimpanzee for the close-ups. Movie audiences in 1932 were apparently much more forgiving in those days.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue can be found on the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection. It's available on Amazon.

Behind the Mask

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: Okay, let's see what we've got here. A sinister mastermind known only as“Mr. X”. A wire recorder that captures phone dispatches from criminal agents. Hospitals where snoopy undercover cops are dispatched with unnecessary surgeries. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, sure it does. And the truth is, director John Francis Dillon could have made a good movie from the raw material that went into Behind the Mask. Instead, every time he got close to doing something interesting, he chickened out.

It's difficult to understand how you could blow so many opportunities in a mere 70 minutes. Everything in this movie is bungled – Agent Burke’s murder at the hands of the drug gang establishes an entirely different m.o. than is used later in the film. Quinn’s romance with Julie seems exhausted and perfunctory. Henderson’s attempt to kill Quinn when he discovers his identity is exceedingly clumsy (why doesn’t Henderson just shoot him?). Mr. X himself, whose identity is supposed to be the Big Fat Secret Key To Everything, isn’t even mentioned until 24 minutes into the picture. You can get away with pacing like that if you’re Tarkovsky or maybe Hitchcock, and then just barely.

This is a movie that perfectly demonstrates the kind of bread-and-butter character parts Boris Karloff won before he became a household name in his mid-40s. Karloff worked on this movie after Frankenstein was filmed, but before it was released. After his smash success playing Colin Clive's tormented science fair project, he was able to quit playing common thugs and graduated to mad scientists and brilliant lunatics.

Perhaps because success came relatively late in his career, he never seemed to take it for granted, saying "You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time." It's a statement that I guarantee you'll never hear from Tom Cruise.

Karloff is lucky, too, that he gets to work again with Edward Van Sloan, who gives a remarkably wacky and over-the-top performance here as Dr. Steiner.

Better-known today as the father of actor Tim (The Magnificent Ambersons) Holt, Jack Holt was once famous in his own right. He appeared in nearly a hundred silent features, and he carried on as a brusque leading-man type well into the sound era. I always associate him with Robert Armstrong for some reason, perhaps because they worked in the same era and used the same theatrical rat-a-tat delivery.
BEHIND THE MASK never had a proper DVD release, but you can purchase a copy from Loving the Classics, a great site for public-domain movies.

*How? There was only room for one dummy on that plane.

Saturday, June 19, 1971: The Raven (1935) / The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Synopsis: Driving her car too fast on a rain-slick road, ballet dancer Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) careens down an embankment and is critically injured in the crash. The doctors treating her declare that she will likely never walk again. Her only hope, they say, is brilliant surgeon Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi). But Vollin, who has retired from practice in favor of medical research, refuses. Jean's father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), appeals to his pocketbook and then his humanity, to no avail. Only the news that Vollin's rivals concede his superiority convinces him to perform the operation.

Weeks later, Jean has fully recovered. Though she is awed by Vollin's talent, and grateful for her new lease on life, she is nonetheless uncomfortable with Vollin's growing personal interest in her. Judge Thatcher notices the same thing, and warns Vollin to stay away from Jean.

Vollin, enraged that Thatcher would be so ungrateful as to stand in the way of what he desires, begins to plot his revenge, and before long he finds that an unexpected visitor has turned up at his door, one who will help move his plan forward.

The visitor is easily recognized by anyone who reads the newspapers -- he is a fugitive named Bateman (Boris Karloff) and he has heard that the brilliant doctor can alter his appearance and allow him to avoid detection. Vollin changes the man's appearance, all right -- by severing a critical nerve, he causes one side of Bateman's face to sag like that of a stroke victim. He then tells the fugitive that he will repair the nerve damage only if he assists him in meting out revenge against Jean, her fiancee and Judge Thatcher.

Vollin arranges for Jean's family and friends to visit him over a long weekend. They do not suspect that Vollin is a man obsessed with death and torture -- nor that he has a trick house with iron shutters that can trap its occupants inside -- and downstairs, a collection of torture devices inspired by the stories of Edgar Allan Poe...

Comments: What, you two troublemakers again? Prior to signing on to the Horror Incorporated Project, I didn't know that Karloff and Lugosi had appeared in so many films together. But here they are again. Really, they were kind of the Martin and Lewis of 30s horror movies.
The Raven, in fact, is a direct follow-up (though not a sequel) to The Black Cat, Universal's top money-maker for 1934.

Like the earlier Poe-inspired outing, this one boasts an extremely tenuous literary connection, a snazzy house with some nasty secrets in the cellar, a pair of young lovers, and a beautiful woman in danger. But Karloff and Lugosi trade places; this time Karloff is the decent but broken man tormented by his past, while Lugosi is the pipe organ-playing nutter.

Even by the standards of Universal horror films, Lugosi portrays an extremely gloomy fellow here (let's face it: anyone who plays a pipe organ in his living room when he's not tinkering with the torture chamber in his basement cannot be described as happy-go-lucky), and his Dr. Vollin is essentially the mad scientist character he would play again and again throughout his career.

Boris Karloff manages to make Bateman sympathetic largely through body language (he was really very good at these sort of roles) and Irene Ware was delightful as Jean. Ware's good-natured flirtiness might have looked easy enough, but remember that she had to convince the audience in a few brief scenes that she could be ground zero of a man's obsession (if you want to see a movie that doesn't pull this off, see Invisible Ray, The).

The Raven is rather slow out of the gate, which perhaps contributes to its lackluster reputation, but if you hang in there until the third act you'll be rewarded with a fairly suspenseful finish. I'm not suggesting that the movie makes a lot of sense (why would Bateman, a fugitive desperate to change his appearance, enlist the aid of a prominent neurosurgeon?)

But it does capture a certain brooding atmosphere, and much of the punch of these old-style horror flicks was in the atmosphere they created. I don't recall a single scene taking place during the day, and in spite of The Raven's thin storyline -- or perhaps because of it -- I suspect it's the sort of movie that Edgar Allan Poe would have appreciated.

The Man They Could Not Hang

Synopsis: Dr. Henryk Savaard (Boris Karloff) is a brilliant doctor as well as a great humanitarian. He has designed a machine that will keep the blood circulating in a patient's body even when the heart has stopped. This is used in tandem with a coffin-like chamber that chills the body. With the body thus in a state of suspended animation, doctors can operate on a patient at their leisure.

With the assistance of his friend Dr. Lang (Byron Foulger), Savaard enlists his lab assistant Bob (Stanley Brown) to test the machine. Their plan is to stop Bob's heart, use the machine to circulate his blood for a time, then restore him to life. But the police burst in during the experiment. Finding Bob's heart not beating, the coroner declares him dead and Savaard is arrested for murder.

At his trial Savaard tries to explain his methods, but the jury is unimpressed. He is convicted and sentenced to hang. Embittered, Savaard vows to take vengeance on the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and all twelve jurors .

On death row, Savaard arranges to have his body turned over to Dr. Lang after the hanging.

The prison chaplain makes a final visit to his cell in the hours before his execution, but Savaard seems unconcerned, even haughty, about facing death. Within the hour Savaard is hanged and his body is handed over to Dr. Lang.

Months later, a reporter notices something peculiar: six of the jurors in the Savaard case have apparently committed suicide. Soon he learns that the surviving jurors -- as well as the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney -- have been invited to a mysterious house. Going to investigate, the reporter learns that he and the invitees are trapped inside. Dr. Savaard's voice comes over a hidden loudspeaker, telling his guests that they will die one by one, every fifteen minutes. Moreover, no one will ever suspect Savaard because he has the perfect alibi: he's already dead....

Comments: This week we have another Columbia offering from the Son of Shock! TV package, and don't be surprised if this one seems a bit familiar. The premise here -- a gentle doctor trying to serve mankind is unjustly sentenced to the gallows, after which he becomes a murderer -- is quite similar to that of 1940's Before I Hang, which was broadcast on Horror Incorporated on May 30.

Hmm, let's see. Aside from the studio and the premise, what else do these movies have in common?

Well, both star Boris Karloff; both have the word "hang" in the title; and both titles are misleading (Before I Hang features a man who isn't hanged; The Man They Could Not Hang features a man who actually is hanged. *

But the two movies actually diverge dramatically after the initial setup. Dr. Garth in Before I Hang becomes the unfortunate victim of a Jekyll-and-Hyde side effect hidden in his breakthrough serum. Dr. Savaard simply turns into an embittered serial killer. In fact, Savaard's angry address to the courtroom is the closest I've seen to an out-and-out "Fools! I'll destroy you all!" speech from a cinematic mad scientist.

The idea of transforming Karloff from a gentle humanitarian into a monster makes a good deal of sense, because Karloff is quite convincing at both. He's an enormously likable actor. But I didn't buy his transformation in this movie. If Savaard was as gentle and humane a man as we're led to believe, even the death of his lab assistant and his unjust conviction for murder wouldn't be enough to send him over the edge. The truth is, it isn't easy to turn a truly good man into a truly evil one. Had Savaard suffered a Job-like punishment, had everything in his life taken away, even his devoted daughter Janet, that might have been enough to do the trick.

Oh, had I forgotten to mention that Dr. Savaard had a devoted daughter named Janet? She was played by Lorna Gray, who is marvelous. I guess I didn't mention her because she isn't really germane to the plot, at least until the last couple of minutes of the picture. Gray's performance, brief as it turns out to be, is one of the truly good things about The Man They Could Not Hang. So it's a pity they didn't give her more to do.

* But let's be fair: Before My Sentence Is Commuted To Life In Prison lacks a certain dramatic punch, while The Man They Mysteriously Couldn't Kill By Hanging is a bit clunky.

Saturday, June 12, 1971: House of Dracula (1945) / The Man With Nine Lives (1940)

Synopsis: Patients from all over the world seek out the brilliant Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), a physician with a keen mind and a big heart. He has a practice that he runs out of his castle in Vasaria, and those who have lost hope in conventional medicine can turn to him in their hour of need.

Late one night Edelmann is dozing in an easy chair when a man in top hat and tails shows up in his living room and wakes him. The stranger introduces himself as Baron Latos, but it's obvious right away that he's really Count Dracula (John Carradine). He wants Dr. Edelmann to help find a cure for his vampirism.

By "cure", Dracula presumably isn't looking for the sunlight-and-wooden-stake cure. We're talking a medical cure, something that will make him mortal again.

Since Dracula's already dead, I would rate his chances for a full recovery as vanishingly slim, but Edelmann is made of sterner stuff and agrees to give it a try.

Meanwhile, an agitated man is trying to get in to see Dr. Edelmann. It's our old friend Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr). and after badgering the receptionist for a while, he rushes out of the clinic, jabbering about the full Moon that will soon rise.

In his laboratory, Edelmann is examining the Count's blood cells under a microscope, when he gets a phone call from Vasaria's chief of police (Lionel Atwill). A distraught man has demanded to be incarcerated.  He's clearly a nutter, so would Edelmann come down and have a look at him?
Edelmann does so, and comes face to face with Lawrence Talbot, who claims he turns into a werewolf when the Moon is full.

At just about that moment, the full Moon comes into view and Talbot changes into a wolf man -- before his very eyes. He tells the Chief to keep the beast imprisoned until morning -- then he will examine Talbot.

When Dracula comes back Edelmann tells him that vampirism is caused by a blood parasite, and that a series of blood transfusions might do the trick. It turns out that Talbot's problem also has a scientific basis. Talbot turns into a werewolf, we are told, because he believes he will. This belief, combined with certain irregularities in Talbot's skull that put pressure on key points in the brain, trigger his lycanthropic proclivities.

The condition can be cured, Edelmann says, but it will take time. This is too much for the excitable Talbot, who races out of the castle and throws himself off a nearby cliff into the ocean.
Edelmann, believing Talbot may have been swept into a cave in the cliffside, lowers himself with a rope down the cliff face. He finds that Talbot -- now a wolf man -- has indeed found his way into a cave. Moreover, there's someone else there -- Frankenstein's monster, in suspended animation....

Comments: I impatiently brushed off House of Dracula when it aired previously, grumbling that these silly monster rallies weren't worth my time.  However, I have since realized my time isn't worth that much.  This movie does have some interesting ideas anyway, so let's take a moment to unpack them.

Dr. Edelmann's ability to add vampirism and lycanthropy to the standard medical textbooks might seem improbable.  But remember that the good doctor is an educated man of the mid-20th century.  Back then science promised to illuminate all the dark recesses of human fears and superstitions.  By midcentury, in fact, there was a growing suspicion that there were no problems that science couldn't solve.

So it was only a matter of time before vampires and werewolves would be reassessed as medical conditions on a par with smallpox and polio, every bit as easy to understand and almost as easy to conquer.  This isea was bubbling up across the horror and science-fiction genres. While House of Dracula is an early attempt to provide a science-fiction explanation for vampire lore, it wasn't the first (for example, it was predated by A. E. Van Vogt's short story "Asylum", published in 1942)  nor was it particularly influential; Richard Matheson was clearly coming from another direction when he wrote his seminal 1954 novel I Am Legend.  That novel was enormously influential; in fact,  people have been cribbing from Matheson ever since.*

In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the last normal human on Earth after a plague turns everyone else into vampires.  He is a smart and rational man, and during the course of the novel he trains himself to be a biologist in order to isolate the plague that causes vampirism.  This is an important facet of the novel, one missing from its  (three) screen adaptations.**  Neville has an admirably realistic view of science: it isn't technological sorcery that can only be practiced by the members of its designated priesthood.  Rather, it is a system of problem-solving that is based on clearly defined rules.

This is pretty important, I think, and it's where the wheels come off  House of Dracula.  For all the hand-waving toward reason and truthDr. Edelmann is a member of the designated priesthood, and for all the appeals to science and rationality, Edelmann is just a sorcerer with an alternate pedigree.  For all the patter about blood parasites, at the end of the day Dracula's blood is dirty and corrupt, and when Edelmann gets a dose of it he becomes dirty and corrupt as well.

And the werewolf "cure" by surgery could just as easily have been supernatural in origin; in fact the rare plant that is a necessary ingredient to the medical procedure might as well have magical properties, since there is no alternate way to derive the chemical which it provides.

Ironically Frankenstein's monster, which is the only one that can claim a science-fiction origin, is in a coma for nearly the entire picture.  It wakes up in time to stumble around for a few minutes and then get burned to death.  Again.

The death of noble Dr. Edelmann comes across as genuinely tragic, especially when you consider that Henry Frankenstein did much worse and got off much easier.  Jane Adams turns in a very sympathetic performance as Nina, Dr. Edelmann's hunchbacked assistant, though there is something palpably nasty about the undignified way she's disposed of at the end.

Clearly Martha O'Driscoll's Milliza is seen as the "good" girl in this picture, and she is allowed to walk off into the sunset (or moonrise, if you prefer) holding hands with the man of her dreams -- even if he turns out to be Lon Chaney, Jr.

The Man With Nine Lives

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 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 techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them slowly and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Kravaal eventually comes around.  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: I'm a little worried about the state of modern medicine, at least as it's depicted in The Man With Nine Lives. Dr. Mason, in his opening demonstration of "frozen therapy", monitors his patient's core temperature by slipping a mercury thermometer under her tongue.  He lowers her temperature by piling more ice cubes on top of her, and raises it by applying blankets and hot coffee.  This is ground-breaking medicine?  Her body temperature could be controlled more precisely by putting her in a big styrofoam cooler.

And I'm a bit worried, too, about the competence of law enforcement in Dr. Kravaal's home town.  The guy disappears at the same time as the county sheriff, the town's doctor, Jasper Adams and Adams' nephew.  Presumably, Kravaal's house was searched by the police.  But they find nothing, while two knuckleheads from the city stumble onto the underground chambers that contain the perfectly preserved bodies of the missing people.

Alas, this is only the beginning of the problems with The Man With Nine Lives, which bears a suspicious resemblance to Before I Hang and particularly The Man They Could Not Hang: good scientist develops scientific breakthrough that will benefit all humanity; society misinterprets his genius as madness; good scientist goes bad.

All these films are from Columbia studios, all feature Boris Karloff, and all were made between 1939 and 1940.

Was there a sudden demand for such films?  Did some crazed producer decide that the studio should continue grinding away until the definitive mad scientist movie was in the can? Somehow I imagine an obsessive Boris Karloff-esque character working late at the studio, demanding that his screenwriter guinea pigs deliver him the ultimate mad-scientist-gets-revenge-on-an-unbelieving-world narrative, pronto!

Truth is, we've already seen this movie, and -- sorry, Boris Karloff, you were just fine in this one, again -- maybe it's time to move on to something new.
But before we do so, I want to talk about the bits of exposition we see in these old movies.
At the beginning of The Man With Nine Lives, we get that oldest technique for conveying information -- the opening screen crawl:

Added to the many miracles performed by modern science that have accounted for the saving of thousands and thousands of human beings, comes its newest and most modern discovery -- frozen therapy.
Estimates of how long frozen therapy can produce a state of suspended animation range from days to years.  But on the fact that diseases can be arrested -- that life can be prolonged, by freezing human beings in ice, the medical world agrees.
In research hospitals today, men and women are alive and breathing -- their bodies encased in ice.

Immediately following this lugubrious set-up, we have another expository device, and one that's nearly as old -- a series of newspaper headlines spinning up to the camera.  I complained about the generous use of this technique previously, but here we are again, 42-point type blazing away.  CURE FOR CANCER CLAIMED! shouts the Daily Express.

Amazing breakthrough or slow news day?  You be the judge, gentle reader.  

I always like to read the other news stories on these mocked-up front pages, and here are the other top stories the Express is following:

--$60,000 Damage in Gigantic Eastside Warehouse Fire (I hope no one was hurt);
--Mayor Outlines New Project of Administration (come on, copy desk, you can write snappier headlines than that);
--Stricken Flood Area Victims Receive Aid (as opposed to the non-stricken flood area victims;
--Evans To Drive Mystery Car (how intriguing!) and
-- Only 45 Trudge On In Marathon Hop (kids these days, eh?)

Roger Pryor is the sort of B-picture lead we must accept for this kind of film, and Jo Ann Sayers does well enough as his tall and bony love interest.  Really, this is a Boris Karloff picture, and as usual I admire the way Karloff can convey basic decency with an undercurrent of calculating ruthlessness.
Overall, this isn't a bad picture, but it might have been better if we hadn't already seen it couple of times before.

THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES is available on DVD from Amazon.

Saturday, June 5, 1971: House of Frankenstein(1944) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: In Neustadt prison, mad scientist Dr. Niemann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel are unexpectedly freed when a wall of their cell collapses during a violent thunderstorm. The two happen upon Lampini's traveling horror show, which boasts as its main attraction the skeleton of Count Dracula. Neimann and Eric quickly murder Lampini and his driver and take their places. Niemann has been obsessed with proving the genius of Dr. Frankenstein and he sets out to the village where the Monster was created.

Niemann discovers that the skeleton of Dracula is authentic when he removes the stake that had been thrust through the vampire's heart. The skeleton promptly transforms into the Count. Threatening to replace the stake if Dracula doesn't do his bidding, Niemann sends the vampire out to kill the three men who had him imprisoned: Strauss, Ullman and Hussman. Dracula kills Hussman but dies before he can dispense with the hated Strauss and Ullman.

Reaching the village of Vasaria, they encounter a band of gypsies. Seeing a gypsy woman Ilonka being abused, Daniel saves her and, smitten with her, asks her to join them.

Later, examining the ruins of Frankenstein Castle, Neimann and Daniel discover the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man. Niemann realizes that the Monster can be revived, and he plans to place the Monster's brain in Lawrence Talbot's body; Talbot's brain in Strauss' body, and Ullman's brain in the Monster's body. But discovering that the Ilonka has fallen in love with Lawrence Talbot, Daniel wants his own brain placed into Talbot's body....

Comments: The House of Frankenstein is a movie about many things. It is an indictment of science without discipline, of ambition without morals, of the loss of identity in a scientific age, of the cruelty of unrequited love; and in Lawrence Talbot's case, the lure of the thanatos, the existential knowledge that dogs us all -- the knowledge that the only peace we will find in this world is in the grave....

Aw, who the hell am I kidding? It's a Frankenstein movie, okay? There's a wolf man! And a mad scientist! And a really lazy, ineffectual Dracula! If you're looking for more than that, you're barking up the wrong tree.

Really, if there is any moral to be found at the heart of House of Frankenstein, it is this: everyone should be happy with their own brain. Everybody is lusting after somebody else's brain in this movie, and it actually made me very sad.

House of Frankenstein is generally better-regarded than its predecessor Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but I'm not sure why; there are too many characters here and altogether too much going on. Dracula appears early on and is killed off too quickly and too glibly. In fact, Dracula dies before any of the other monsters are brought into the story.

For this reason the movie is often described as "episodic", but the plot actually holds together fairly well once the Dracula subplot is (rather unceremoniously) dispensed with.

Interestingly, having Frankenstein's monster -- essentially a science-fiction element -- occupy the screen with supernatural things like vampires and werewolves seemed more jarring in this movie than in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. This might be because Siodmak's script for the earlier film introduced the Wolf Man first, and from there led Dr. Mannering to Baroness Frankenstein and the perversion of science that her family created.

But this movie gives us the science first, and Dr. Niemann (a scientist, though admittedly an unconventional one) doesn't seem to be particularly surprised that the Dracula skeleton in Lampini's collection is imbued with supernatural powers, or that Lawrence Talbot is really a werewolf.
The cast is generally pretty good here, with Boris Karloff showing a sinister charm as Niemann. I particularly liked his conversation with Lampini in the trailer -- he imbues the character with an ironic sense of detachment, an interesting note added to a fairly straightforward mad-scientist role.

Lugosi was originally slated to reprise his Dracula role, but (in one of those little Hollywood ironies) he had committed to appear in a touring production of Arsenic and Old Lace, as Jonathan Brewster, the role originated by Boris Karloff.

This is too bad, because without Lugosi, the role goes to a surprisingly laconic John Carradine, who plays Dracula as if he were a two-bit riverboat gambler.

Lon Chaney, Jr. seems oddly distracted, as though wondering how many more of these movies he's going to have to do (answer: not many). Ann Gwynne, as the spunky, fast-talking American gal, seems to have breezed in from a Howard Hawks picture.

J. Carrol Naish has the most interesting performance, as the tormented hunchback Daniel. How hunchbacks became a desirable accessory for mad scientists is beyond me, but in the 13 years since the original Frankenstein they are apparently a requirement. Daniel gets the most poignant story and as a result, is rewarded with the most tragic death. The truth is, all the principal characters are killed in quick succession during the last two minutes of the film, apparently in a desperate attempt to tie up loose ends. House of Frankenstein doesn't work well, but the plot is so overloaded that, really, you're amazed it works at all.

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: This is the first madcap comedy we've seen on Horror Incorporated, and it's a movie so tethered to one locale that it looks as though it was originally written for the stage -- even though the credits indicate that it's an original screenplay.

And while I knew I'd never seen it before, why did The Boogie Man Will Get You seem so familiar to me?

I finally figured it out, and no doubt you have already done so as well: The Boogie Man Will Get You is a pretty blatant knockoff of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a popular Broadway show at the time. Karloff himself had originated the role of Jonathan Brewster on stage the previous year. Instead of two dotty but lovable aunts collecting dead bodies in the cellar of their boarding house, we have a dotty but lovable scientist storing dead bodies in the cellar of his inn.

As you've probably already guessed, this is about as much a horror movie as Arsenic and Old Lace was. It seems to have slipped into the Son of Shock! package more or less by accident (perhaps the title and the presence of Karloff and Peter Lorre convinced someone at Screen Gems that it was a horror flick).

So we must shrug for the moment and go along with it.
As a horror movie, it's obviously a non-starter. As a comedy -- well, it certainly makes you appreciate Arsenic and Old Lace, in much the same way that watching Starcrash improves your opinion of George Lucas' talent as a filmmaker:

Karloff is perfectly serviceable in the absent-minded professor role, and Peter Lorre in particular seems to be enjoying himself as the kooky and amoral Dr. Lorencz. Retired boxer "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom gets in some laughs as an unsuccessful cosmetics salesman.

And Jeff Donnell (here credited as "Miss Jeff Donnell") shines in her too-brief screen appearance. Considered too plain-looking to be a romantic lead (at least by Hollywood standards), her career sputtered out too quickly.... though I suspect any agent who let her use the stage name "Jeff" might not have been acting in her best interests.
But beyond that?


Nah. Sorry, I got nothin'.
THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU is available on the 2-DVD set Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff
Look, what do I know? Maybe you'll like it. Proceed with caution.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday, May 29, 1971: Werewolf of London (1935) / The Black Room (1935)

Synopsis: On an expedition to the mountains of Tibet botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on the trail of a mysterious flower that blooms only in moonlight. Entering an impossibly remote region (which looks suspiciously like California's Bronson Caverns), he secures a specimen of the "moon flower" but is attacked by a strange creature -- seemingly part man and part wolf.

Back at the laboratory in his London estate, he tries to get the moon flower to blossom under an artificial moonlight projector he has constructed, to no avail.

Glendon's obsession with discovering the secrets of the flower has caused him to neglect everyone in his life, including his beautiful and devoted wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson).

Glendon is soon visited by a mysterious scientist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland). Yogami warns Glendon that the creature that attacked him in Tibet was a werewolf; because of this, he is doomed to become one himself. The only hope for staving off the affliction is the juice from the moon flower that Glendon is now keeping in his laboratory. But it quickly becomes clear that Yogami wants the specimens for his own purposes.

Glendon notices that when he places his hand underneath the moonlight projector, the hand grows hairy; when he applies a drop of juice from one of the blossoms on the hand, it returns to normal. But there are only one or two buds on the moon flower -- not enough to help him if things get, well, really hairy.

Meanwhile, Lisa has reconnected with an old flame, Paul Ames, who has recently returned from a long stay in America. Paul runs a flight school in California, a not-so-subtle counterpoint to the deeply-rooted life of a botanist.

While Paul's behavior toward Lisa is strictly above board, it is clear that there is a mutual attraction at work, and it is also quite obvious that Paul can offer a life that Wilfred can't: the carefree, adventurous and attentive Paul is shown to be a favorable alternative to the secretive, buttoned-down Wilfred.

But soon the full Moon rises, and Wilfred's plans to lock himself away for duration fail. Now the Werewolf of London is on the loose, and looking for blood....

Comments: Henry Hull stars as the hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent, in a production that predates George Waggner's better-known The Wolf Man by six years. Werewolf of London deserves praise on a number of points: it is Universal's first foray into werewolf lore; the moon flower that serves as an antidote to lycanthropy is an interesting device; but most importantly, it cleverly uses the werewolf concept as a metaphor for deeply repressed emotion.

Not only is Wilfred a stereotypical scientist -- more interested in his test tubes and experiments than anything else -- but he's also a stereotypical Brit, who finds strong emotions confusing and emotional displays distasteful. Thus Wilfred can only watch disapprovingly from afar as his wife is drawn into the orbit of another man.

So it makes sense, given Wilfred's state of mind, that when he becomes a werewolf he inexorably zeros in on Lisa, whom he subconsciously views as the source of his troubles.
This is far more interesting dramatic terrain than we find in The Wolf Man, in which we're asked to believe that Lawrence Talbot, a thoroughly nice guy who never had an unkind thought about anyone, goes on a rampage entirely against his will.

The Wolf Man winds up being the better movie, though, for a number of reasons. From beginning to end Werewolf Of London proceeds at what might charitably be called a leisurely pace, and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense. The moon flower, which is carefully set up to be a crucial plot element, is discarded by the third act. And in spite of its best efforts the movie veers dangerously close to comedy, because nearly all the victims belong to London high society. Werewolf of London becomes a movie primarily about social embarrassment.


Wilfred's greatest crime is not that he's turning into a wolf and killing people. It's that he is making such a deuced spectacle of himself among the teatime-and-lawn-tennis set. It just isn't done, old man!
Henry Hull is convincing as the starchy Wilfred, and does well enough in the werewolf scenes. But he isn't helped by the makeup effects, which made him look more like Eddie Munster than a wild animal. Valerie Hobson (who played Elizabeth in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) makes a very fetching Lisa -- beautiful, loyal to her husband, but also keenly intelligent and capable of making her own decisions when the chips are down. Hobson takes a thinly-written role and makes more of it than most actresses of the day would have done.
Warner Oland, on loan from Fox Studios, was at the height of his considerable fame when this movie premiered in the spring of 1935. He had been playing detective Charlie Chan in that profitable series of films for several years now, and would do so until his death in 1938. Typecast as a Mysterious Oriental (though he wasn't actually of Asian descent himself) Oland nonetheless turns in a solid performance here.

Lester Matthews, a bread-and-butter actor who worked steadily throughout the 1930s, is unquestionably the weak link as Paul Ames. Matthews is far too bland for the role. Paul should be a dashing Errol Flynn type, a fun-loving and adventurous soul who points up all of Wilfred's deficiencies as a husband and as a man. Instead, we have another repressed Brit politely eating cucumber sandwiches on the sidelines. This is a werewolf movie that could have used a lot more wolfish behavior.

The Black Room

Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined "black room" of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.

Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.

The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother's rule began. At Gregor's invitation, Anton returns home.

At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.

When Gregor is implicated in the disappearance of Mashka, a gypsy serving girl, the townspeople rise up. They storm the castle and demand Gregor be handed over to them.

To everyone's surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.

While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there -- including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.

As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. "The prophesy will be fulfilled!" Anton insists. "From the grave?" Gregor asks sarcastically. "Yes," Anton says as he dies. "From the grave!"
Emerging from the Black Room, Gregor now assumes the identity of Anton, able to rule again while being absolved of all his past crimes. Yet Anton's dying words keep coming back to him...

Comments: Whenever you are introduced to a pair of twins in the movies, you can be sure that one twin will turn out to be good and the other evil. This is such a persistent cinematic trope that if I didn't know better, I'd assume that this was simply an accepted fact of real life.

Well, what do I know? Maybe it is; my experience with twins is quite limited. I seem to remember a pair of twins in my kindergarten class; neither seemed noticeably good or evil, but perhaps their true natures hadn't yet emerged.

Many years later I spent a summer working in a factory with a pair of stunningly beautiful twin gymnasts. For most of the summer I simply assumed I was dreaming and that they weren't really there. I remember being rather sweet on one of them (probably because she laughed at my jokes), but neither seemed the least bit evil. Of course, the evil twin might have been pretending to be good, for her own nefarious purposes. That is exactly the sort of thing I would expect.

Passing yourself off as your good twin is a deliciously evil thing to do, and it's an absolute requirement in your standard good twin / evil twin movie.

And of course it happens in tonight's feature, The Black Room. The insidious Gregor kills brother Anton and takes his place. This is bad luck for for Anton but a good thing for us, because good twins are always boring and we're much better with him out of the way.

Prophesies, of course, always come true in the movies as well. That's just a fact. So we know going in that even in death, Anton will somehow manage to kill Gregor in the Black Room. And we're not disappointed.

This is the second Columbia feature to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated, and already we're seeing a pattern: Columbia horror films are a bit stingy on the horror. Not a great concern -- this movie is pretty lively -- but Universal would have at least thrown in a torture chamber or a vampire or something to keep it interesting.

Another difference is that angry villagers in a Universal film always carry torches and pitchforks. They get liquored up and act crazy. But disappointingly, the villagers aren't really angry here; they are stone cold sober and they arrive at the castle empty-handed. And when Gregor renounces his title, they all melt away.

The citizens of Vasaria would never have stood for it. They'd have burned down the castle just for the trouble Gregor had put them all to.

Karloff does a good job playing the dandified Anton, but the real fun is clearly playing Gregor, and later, playing Gregor playing Anton. Unlike some actors who have done double duty on-screen, Karloff is perfectly capable of playing two entirely different characters. As always Karloff is wonderful to watch and I'm happy that the fame he found in Frankenstein made it possible for him to break into more lead roles. He's really marvelous here.

THE BLACK ROOM is available on the 2-DVD set Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff
It's widely available, and if your local video store doesn't have it, will.

Saturday, May 22, 1971: Son of Frankenstein (1939) / Night Monster (1942)

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father's estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father's work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail.

At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms. Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father's "monster"; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots.

Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father's laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father's work by bringing the creature back to life...

Comments: This was the third entry in Universal's Frankenstein series of films, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. It essentially plays as Young Frankenstein without the jokes. Basil Rathbone brings a haughty authority to Frankenstein that Colin Clive couldn't manage; and we get the impression that the motivating factor for Wolf is an obsession with restoring his family's good name, a somewhat healthier motivation than Henry's twisted desire for god-like power.

That "Frankenstein" is now shown to be the name of the town as well as a particular family isn't a trivial detail. Wolf sees the people of the village as his people, sees his role as that of a feudal lord who must help the peasants to appreciate his father's genius. Of course, in later films various members of the Frankenstein clan would be lured into the monster-building trade for the flimsiest of excuses, but on this occasion it makes at least some kind of sense.

Part of the problem in making a Frankenstein movie is that the very presence of the creature limits your story options. The monster isn't going to enroll in Oxford. He isn't going to get married. He isn't going to solve a murder that has baffled Scotland Yard.

Nope, he is really only going to do one thing, and that is stumble around and smash things. The truth is, the Frankenstein films had already established their formula, and the only interest from here on out would have to be sustained by the secondary and tertiary characters.

On that score, Son of Frankenstein doesn't disappoint. Lionel Atwill is classy and charming as Krogh. Bela Lugosi, never a particularly talented actor, is unexpectedly engaging here as Ygor. His frequent cackles and growls of "Frahn-ken-shtien!" are funny and memorable, and the production as a whole still carries some of the fine craftsmanship that was evident in the first two films.

Son of Frankenstein was made in 1939, near the end of Universal's so-called "Golden Age" of horror films. The coming war would draw a lot of talent away from the Universal lot, and the overall quality of their output would suffer as a result. But this one was a respectable effort, a reminder of a time when studios produced workmanlike B-pictures built around solid, well-crafted scripts.

Night Monster

Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the spooky swamps of a rural area, miles from the nearest town. It's gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it's really creepy. That's when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.

In fact the only one in the house who isn't a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn't been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn't buying it.

About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit -- King, Timmins and Phipps -- the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.
Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room -- apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.

Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the swamps nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn't prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston -- after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn't quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when he has no arms or legs?

Comments: If I told you that Night Monster was shot in eight days, would you expect to see a good movie?

I'm guessing not. But this little flick really exceeds expectations. Admittedly, it ain't Citizen Kane. But it is still a better movie than it has any right to be.

To me, Night Monster is a good example of how the old Hollywood film factory worked: a script was picked, contract actors were assigned, an existing set was dressed, a shooting schedule was posted, and it was running as the B-picture in theaters across America almost before the prints were dry.

I have a lot of admiration for the old studio system because it was a marvelously efficient way to make lots of movies while ensuring at least a basic level of quality. In spite of what you may have heard, it hasn't entirely disappeared; tune into the Disney Channel sometime, and you'll see a vertically-integrated entertainment outlet at work.

So this is a worthy product of that system: craftsmanlike, competent, but nothing flashy.
And best of all, Night Monster doesn't cheat the audience.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by that. Over the last few weeks, we've seen movies that are basically conventional mysteries or thrillers with a smidgen of horror-movie content. Or -- ahem --with less than a smidgen of horror-movie content. There's nothing more frustrating than being suckered into a movie expecting one thing and getting another. So this week it's refreshing to get a horror movie in which the horror elements are an essential part of the narrative.

But there is a bait-and-switch present in Night Monster, one that I haven't been able to figure out. The top billing for the movie go to Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Yet both actors are relegated to minor parts. Atwill plays the fatuous Dr. King, and Lugosi plays Rolf, the butler. Had I been casting the film, I'd probably give Atwill the Kurt Ingston role, while Lugosi, not a particularly versatile actor, would have been a good choice for the mystic, Agor Singh (though I have no complaint with the performances of Ralph Morgan or Nils Asther -- the latter delivers the obligatory there-are-some-things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know line with appropriate gravity).

I suppose it's a little late to send a letter complaining about the casting to director Ford Beebe, so I will conclude by praising the performance of Janet Shaw, who plays Milly. She has real presence when she's on screen and disappears all too soon.

But when she's there, you can't take your eyes off her. In one scene the Ingston chauffer is driving her to town. Suddenly he pulls off the road, turns off the car, and turns toward her with a wolfish gleam in his eye. Shaw delivers the best line in the movie: "What's this all about," she tosses off contemptuously, "as if I didn't know?"