Friday, April 20, 2012

Interlude: It Took Me A While....

....but I've finally gotten around to adding Chilly Billy's Chiller Theater TV Log to the blogroll.  It is a crackerjack site, curated by George "E-Gor" Chastain, who also runs the delightful E-Gor's Chamber of Horror Hosts page, which I've mentioned in the past, and which you will already find in our list of recommended sites.

I've only seen YouTube clips of Bill Cardille's program, but it's pretty clear why this show is one of the most fondly-remembered creature features ever.  To put it simply, it's tremendous fun.  Cardille is a guy who seems to love what he's doing and we can't help but enjoy his company. And the movies, week in and week out, are a blast.  As much as I love Horror Incorporated, I'll admit it's a bit stodgy when compared to Cardille's show: Horror Incorporated  is heavy on Universal horror (exclusively the Shock! package at first, expanding later to include 50's sci-fi and horror offerings) and therefore without a great variation in style and tone. 

But part of Chiller Theater's charm was its zany mishmash of subgenres.  Take the Shock! package, throw in some Hammer titles (The Creeping Unknown, Island of the Burning Doomed), add some Corman cheapies (War of the Satellites, Not of This Earth), a dash of Ed Wood (Bride of the Monster), some indie favorites (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Invisible Invaders), a couple of made-for-TV oddities (The Questor Tapes, Gargoyles), spice it up with some weird Japanese titles (The H-Man, X From Outer Space), shake it up and see what happens.  There's a gleeful, slightly anarchic sensibility at work here, and little wonder the show has such a following even today.

E-Gor is clearly a smarter guy than I am, because he didn't foolishly decide to write about every freakin' movie that came up on the schedule; nor was he dim-witted enough to do all the research himself.  He crowd-sourced the titles, calling on folks with collections of old TV Guides to suss out what was on for a particular week.  As a result, his site is complete, and he is no doubt sipping mojitos on the beach, watching a Caribbean sunset and congratulating himself on a job well done.  Meanwhile, the Horror Incorporated Project grinds on, year after year, and my only hope is that I complete my work before the icy hand of Death clamps down on my weary shoulder. 

But you know, E-Gor had a great idea.  If you're a fan of the old Horror Incorporated show, and if you have anything that would add context to the project - an old advertisement, an autographed photo, a videotaped promotional spot -- send it to me and I'll post it on the site.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Saturday, July 17, 1971: Return of the Vampire (1944) / The Man Who Lived Twice (1936)

Synopsis: October 1918 -- a werewolf named Andreas skulks through a British cemetery at dusk.  He enters a crypt, where he awakens vampire Armand Tesla. Andreas tells Tesla that his latest victim is "still alive", and that despite the attentions of Dr. Jane Ainsley and an Oxford professor named Saunders, no progress is being made toward curing her.  Andreas laughs at the notion that the scientists will find anything wrong with the girl that can be explained by science.

Meanwhile, Lady Jane Ainsley is working in the private sanitorium that adjoins her family estate.  She has been examining a blood sample from the very same woman Andreas spoke of, a woman who was brought in suffering from shock.  Ainsley notes that the woman's blood isn't anemic, as she had expected; it is in fact quite normal.  Rather, it appears that the woman's blood had been drained from her body, which seems impossible.  Aside from two tiny pinpricks on her throat, she has no wounds of any kind.  Both she and Professor Saunders are baffled.

The patient becomes agitated, shouting fearfully to an unseen person in the room that she is loyal and hasn't told anyone about what happened.  Moments later, she dies.

That night, Professor Saunders begins reading a strange treatise on vampirism, written a century ago by Dr. Armand Tesla.  By morning, Saunders is convinced that their unfortunate patient's blood had been drained by a vampire.  Dr. Ainsley is reluctant to believe such a wild theory, but when Saunders' granddaughter Nicki is revealed to have been bitten as well, Ainsley is convinced.

Ainsley and Saunders deduce that a vampire operating in the vicinity must have its coffin nearby, somewhere where it can be easily concealed.  Searching the crypt at a nearby cemetery, they discover the vampire sleeping.  They drive a railroad spike through its heart, killing it.  At that moment, Andreas enters the crypt, and he falls to the ground, transforming from a werewolf to a man -- Tesla's power over him has been broken.  They bury Tesla's body in an unmarked grave.

Twenty-three years later, we find Andreas working as a trusted assistant to Dr. Ainsley, and Nicki has grown up to become a beautiful young woman, engaged to Dr. Ainsley's son John.  But Britain is again at war, and one night a stray German bomb falls inside the cemetery.  Surveying the damage, a pair of workers find a man's body with a railroad spike driven through it.  They remove the spike and re-inter the body.

Later, Dr. Ainsley sends Andreas on an important errand: a scientist named Dr. Hugo Bruckner has been spirited out of Nazi Germany and is arriving at the British coast.  Andreas is to meet him and escort him to a temporary residence.  But on the way, Andreas meets Armand Tesla.  Tesla once again gains control of Andreas, and forces him to kill Bruckner.  Taking the place of Dr. Bruckner, Tesla begins to plan his revenge on Dr. Ainsley and her family.....

Comments:  Back in the 1930s, studios didn't grind out sequels at the rate they do today.  It took four years for Universal to put together a sequel to Frankenstein.  For The Invisible Man the gap was seven years and for The Mummy it was eight.

  And while Dracula's Daughter (1936) is technically a sequel, the character of Count Dracula himself didn't return to cinemas until 1943's Son of Dracula.  Eleven months after that, the count turned up again, this time as something of a bit player in House of Frankenstein. But as much as Lugosi yearned to reprise the role that made him famous, the part was handed off to other actors - first Lon Cheney, Jr. and then John Carradine.

Universal had always been strangely ambivalent about Bela Lugosi, often trading on his name even while relegating him to smaller and smaller roles. In the end he was forced to lobby for whatever parts he could convince screenwriters and producers to throw his way.  His stint at Monogram couldn't have done much to boost his confidence, so it must have been wonderful for him to essentially play the count again in Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire at Columbia.

At this point Universal had pretty much cornered the market on horror films, and Columbia had never tried very hard to compete.  But Return of the Vampire is a strikingly atypical example of Columbia's output, essentially an homage to the entire Universal horror canon.  Not only do we have the caped vampire stalking beautiful young women in streets of London, but a werewolf whose makeup is strikingly similar to Jack Pierce's design for The Wolf Man (though Matt Willis looks a bit more like a terrier than a wolf).  Enough dry ice is used to fog up the graveyards of a dozen Universal pictures; we even have fog indoors in a couple of scenes.

And unlike Columbia's typical approach to horror, Return of the Vampire is quite unflinching in its depiction of the supernatural.  There is no attempt to dress it up in scientific patter or resort to an explained-away ending.  Instead, we have the character of Armand Tesla, a Romanian scientist who once sought to study and quantify the phenomenon of vampirism, only to become seduced by its unearthly power himself.  Thus, when posing as Dr. Bruckner, he is able to mouth the comforting platitudes of science, but this is just cover -- it's clear that he no longer believes it.

Lugosi is in fine form here, and he's aided by a very solid cast. Freida Inescort is marvelous as Lady Jane Ainsley, an initially skeptical scientist who must mortgage her sterling reputation in order to convince her colleagues that the vampire she's talking about is real.  She is ultimately the Van Helsing character: her greatest obstacle is not the vampire himself, but the skepticism of those around her.  The luckless Andreas is Tesla's Renfield, though luckily he gets to do more here than eat flies and bulge his eyes out.  He also gets a nobler death scene than Dwight Frye ever did.

This is one of the better-paced horror films of its era, and despite some glaring plot contrivances (I can accept one plot point caused by a stray German bomb, or even two, but three is pushing it) it's one of Lugosi's best films.  It's too bad Universal didn't give Lugosi permanant ownership of the Dracula mantle and let him play the role to his heart's content.  It would have been their best route, economically  as well as artistically speaking; Return of the Vampire was a big moneymaker for Columbia.

Interestingly, the second half of Return of the Vampire introduces a Dracula-seeking-revenge subplot that anticipates the Hammer Dracula films of the 1950s and 60s. Like those later films, the vampire here doesn't get an enormous amount of screentime (we don't even see his face until 23 minutes in), but Lugosi makes the best of all his scenes; the confrontation between Tesla and Ainsley in the music room is thrillingly staged. 

The Man Who Lived Twice

Synopsis: Hard-boiled criminal Slick Rawley (Ralph Bellamy) has been in some tough jams before, but he's really done it this time. During a botched bank job he killed a cop, and now every badge in America is looking for him. He leaves his girlfriend Peggy Russell (Isabel Jewell) in the care of his pal Gloves (Ward Bond) and runs for it.
Hiding out in a lecture hall at a medical college, he hears Dr. Clifford Schuyler (Thurston Hall) expound on his theory of crime: career criminals, he says, are the victims of a medical defect -- namely, small tumors in a certain region of the brain. Remove the tumors, Schuyler says, and the criminal can be permanently cured. He has tested his theory on vicious dogs and apes, and in all cases the animals become gentle and docile after the brain surgery. But as much as Schuyler wishes to test this surgery on a human, the criminal justice system won't allow it.

Rawley follows Schuyler home and offers himself as a test subject. He convinces Schuyler that this might be his only chance to verify his theory, and he asks for only one thing in return: plastic surgery so that he can forever evade detection.

After the surgeries, Rawley (literally) looks like a new man, and he remembers nothing about his past. Dr. Schuyler tells him that his name is James Blake, that he lost his memory in a car accident, and that he has no living relatives.
Blake proves to be an honest, caring and hard-working man -- the very opposite of Slick Rawley. Seeing that Blake is inquisitive and fascinated by medical books, Schuyler enrolls the young man in college, and then medical school. Soon Dr. James Blake is a renowned physician and philanthropist, a man of sterling character, dedicated to improving the lot of America's prison population.

But when Peggy happens to meet Dr. Blake, she begins to suspect that he is her former boyfriend. A dogged police detective begins to think so too. But is Slick Rawley really dead? And if he is, how can Dr. Blake be held responsible for his crimes?

Comments: The Man Who Lived Twice raises a number of big issues in the course of its 73-minute running time -- the utility of prison reform, the price of loyalty, the nature of identity, even the existence of good and evil itself.  But to its great credit it never comes across as preachy or heavy-handed.  Rather it's an intriguing little thought experiment that is aided by a smartly-written script and a terrific performance by Ralph Bellamy in the title role.

In my previous write-up of this movie I'd mentioned Anthony Burgess' novel  A Clockwork Orange, which takes up the same theme but from the opposite direction.  To Burgess, preservation of the authentic self is more important than the good of society as a whole.  In The Man Who Lived Twice, the opposite view is championed: the authentic self has little or no value if it is not aligned with the values of society. 

Dr. Schuyler's theory on criminal behavior -- that it's caused by a physical defect and can be easily treated -- has more far-reaching implications than the screenplay itself suggests.  Such a scientific theory, if proven to be true, would turn the whole world upside down, because most of our religious and societal institutions are built upon the premise that people are capable of free will.  Schuyler's theory calls into question how many of our choices are dictated by the minor tumors he has identified.  What happens if criminality isn't the tumors' only effect?

Suppose the tumors cause other traits or impulses to appear in patients?  What if the tumors determine whether or not a person is pleasant or rude, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, religious or non-religious?  And if the tumor link extends to these other preferences or behaviors, could anyone truly said to be free to choose any path in their lives?  What would stop society from "fixing" those "defective" traits by the same basis that they "fixed" Slick Rawley's?

If the movie were made today, perhaps it would attempt to tackle all these questions.  That would undoubtedly ruin it.  Part of the pleasure of watching The Man Who Lived Twice is seeing a petty criminal become not just a good man, but a great one.  That's not easy to pull off in any movie, but it works well enough here.  While it's not quite a horror film it carries enough elements of the fantastic -- and asks enough questions -- to keep us interested.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Saturday, July 10, 1971: My Son the Vampire a.k.a. Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Synopsis: Scotland Yard is searching frantically for a man known as "The Vampire", a scientist by the name of Van Housen (Bela Lugosi), who is descended from Transylvanian nobility and who is believed to drink the blood of young women in order to extend his lifespan.

Van Housen sleeps in a coffin and affects the dress and manner of a vampire, but what he really wants to do is to build an army of robots that will take over the world.  So far, he has built only one prototype, which he calls Mark 1.

Van Housen orders Mark 1 delivered to his laboratory (apparently through a conventional shipping company)  but by accident the crate containing it is mixed up with another crate meant for an Irish washerwoman known as Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan).  Soon Van Housen discovers the mix-up and orders Mark 1 to come to the lab and bring Riley along as well.  Seeing an opportunity for fresh blood, the scientist gives Riley a light housekeeping job, but insists on fattening her up with fresh steak and liver.

 In order to build his army, Van Housen needs large quantities of uranium.  In order to secure the uranium, he needs a map in the possession of Julia Loretti (Maria Mercedes), who has recently returned from an expedition to South America.  Even though he has Loretti in his laboratory and in a trance, Van Housen has been unable to discover where the map is hidden.

Discovering that not only Loretti but all the missing women are being held captive by Van Housen, Riley escapes from the mansion and runs to the nearest police station to report the crime.  However,  because a clumsy drunkard at the police station has accidentally doused her with gin, the hysterical Riley reeks of alcohol, and the police decide to arrest her for disorderly conduct....

Comments: The genesis of this bizarre little film has been discussed at length elsewhere; according to El Santo, Bela Lugosi was in England for a stage revival of Arsenic and Old Lace, but the under-financed production collapsed.*   This left Lugosi in dire straits financially, without even enough money to return home.  As luck would have it, he was offered $5,000 to appear in a low-brow comedy to be called Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire.

Old Mother Riley was a drag act cooked up by a music-hall comic named Arthur Lucan.  The character was Irish, which for English audiences signaled that she was lazy, dim-witted and always ready for a drink.  The first Old Mother Riley film was released in 1937.  By 1952 the series had been more than played out,  and the novelty of man in a dress wasn't enough to lure audiences anymore; presumably it was felt that the novelty of a man in a dress interacting with Lugosi in a cape would pack 'em into the theaters.  In the U.S.,  which had been heretofore deprived of Old Mother Riley's antics, it was released as Vampire Over London.  

The version we're seeing tonight was titled My Son the Vampire for a 1963 re-release.  Novelty songster Allen Sherman was at the peak of his (mercifully brief) fame at this point, and his new single "My Son the Vampire" played over the opening credits.  As a promotional gimmick it doesn't seem to have done much good -- the title doesn't really match the movie.  Even worse, Sherman's song is awful, and it never charted.

The good news about the film itself is that it isn't quite as dreadful as I imagined it might be.  I went into it fearful of the humiliations that Bela Lugosi would have to endure in order to get a paycheck.  But the surprise is that Lugosi is the best thing about the movie.  He seems to be enjoying himself a great deal, and displays an unexpected knack for comedy.

I don't think anyone would argue the film is laugh riot (El Santo describes it as "funny as the Khmer Rouge") but there are a few amusing moments, all of them from Lugosi himself, who seems quite at ease and worth every penny the ironically-named Renown Pictures paid him.

I'd been expecting Lugosi to look desperate and humiliated, but that honor actually goes to Arthur Lucan himself.  His Old Mother Riley act is so dreadfully cheap and moth-eaten that it's hard to believe that anyone -- anywhere -- ever found it funny.   Humor is subjective, of course, and the world contains an alarming number of people who think a man wearing a dress is inherently funny. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that the Old Mother Riley films endured as long as they did.

The movie is made so carelessly that a badly-dubbed musical number is thrown in at around the ten-minute mark, presumably to pad the running time (in fact, this might be the only musical in the history of cinema to have just one song).  As it was, I was grateful that I didn't have to hear any more of them.  One was bad enough.

The Face Behind the Mask

SynopsisImmigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He's a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O'Hara (Don Beddoe). O'Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.

Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can't get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him.

Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky's gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go....

Comments:  I had noted previously that this Robert Florey-directed thriller is a bit hard to pin down.  It's not quite a horror film, not quite a crime picture and not quite a melodrama.  Nevertheless, it holds our attention and benefits from an exceptional cast, from Peter Lorre himself to George E. Stone as the sympathetic thief Dinky and Evelyn Keyes as good girl Helen.  

In fact its horror credentials are so slight that there's little reason for it to be routinely assigned to that category at all, aside from its inclusion in Screen Gems' Son of Shock! TV package.  Its inclusion in Son of Shock was more desperation than anything else; with the exception of the Karloff mad scientist flicks from 1939 - 1940, Columbia had a notable dearth of horror titles.  A few movies were apparently thrown in just to round out the numbers, and this appears to be one of them.

In July of 2011 The Face Behind the Mask was nominated for entry into the National Film Registry.  Brian Taves' introduction argues that The Face Behind the Mask is a minor masterpiece of Expressionism, a fact partially obscured by its rushed shooting schedule:

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK was unquestionably a "B" picture, a film shot quickly on a low budget for exhibition on a double bill. Despite these modest origins, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK is widely acknowledged to be among the greatest "B" films ever made, and one of the few to offer profundity and depth in theme and characterization, as well as artistry in its writing, direction, and acting. While containing elements of several genres--horror, social consciousness, gangster, and romance--the film transcends all of them. THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK won favor from both critics and audiences, and a small following in its time that has grown in the intervening years, an exceptional record of success for a movie made so inexpensively. The film remained in continuous showing for two years after it was released in 1941, and was later theatrically reissued on numerous occasions, as late as 1955, before it began to be shown on television.
The movie seems a bit too scattershot to be regarded as "one of the greatest "B" films ever made" -- that covers a lot of territory, after all -- but it's good to see that The Face Behind the Mask  hasn't been forgotten.  Maybe adding it to the National Film Registry will lead to a decent home video release; this effort certainly deserves it.
*It should be noted, however, that in a TV interview shortly after his return to America, Lugosi says that he was in England for a stage revival of Dracula.