Sunday, March 18, 2012

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.


kochillt said...

HOUSE OF DRACULA certainly looks threadbare coming after HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; even Jack Pierce had to make do with less yak hair for Chaney's Wolf Man. This turned out to be Lon's final feature under his wartime Universal contract, and it's too bad he comes off pretty tired. Karloff showed signs of weariness in HOF, yet in 1940's THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES he still performs with utter sincerity, before his time on Broadway made his name a household word.

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