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.


kochillt said...

I just couldn't get around the fact that Lester Matthews and Valerie Hobson are supposed to be childhood sweethearts when he was obviously old enough to be her father (he looked just as much out of place in THE RAVEN). THE BLACK ROOM was cited by Karloff as being "the most fun I've had on a set thus far," and it really shows. My favorite part is after Gregor assumes his brother's identity, conducting a game of chess with the colonel, who truly is taken in until the mirror reflects the truth. After that things move along rather predictably, but it's still a classic.

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