Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Saturday, August 7, 1971: The Man With Nine Lives (1940) / When The Devil Commands (1941)

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 specialized techniques he's developed to revive hypothermic patients (i.e., warming them with blankets and pouring hot coffee down their throats) Dr. Mason eventually revives Kravaal. 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: Sometimes movies are defined by their openings, and it's almost impossible to keep from barking your shins against the opening of this one.  As The Man With Nine Lives starts we are treated to a screen crawl that is supposed to familiarize us with an exciting new medical procedure called "frozen therapy":

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.
Of course, no reputable member of "the medical world" in 1940 would have been able to "agree" with any of this. 

Even in 1940 it was well understood that you cannot place someone in suspended animation simply by lowering their body temperature, no matter how carefully you do it. This is because living cells, when frozen, form ice crystals which cause enormous damage to the organism. 

Most likely the screenwriter misunderstood some of the theoretical uses of what is today known as "cryotherapy".  It doesn't involve piling ice cubes on top of a patient, or placing them in suspended animation; rather it uses liquid nitrogen to selectively kill cells (for example, cancer cells within the prostate gland, a common enough procedure today).

Interestingly, in the decades since this film was made, scientists have learned a great deal about preserving cells and tissue in low-temperature environments. Cells that are suffused with cryoprotectants (a sort of antifreeze for the blood) can be saved for a very long time indeed; in fact contemporary legal battles over frozen embryos couldn't have happened when "The Man With Nine Lives" was made.  The internal organs of animals can now be preserved indefinitely, and it's possible that in the future human organs will be able to be cryopreserved until needed. 

Of course organ transplants weren't even possible when this film was made.  Even the idea of saving a person's life with parts taken from another person was long seen as a radical and distasteful idea; in fact, even as late as the mid-1960s science fiction films such as The Wild Wild Planet took the view that organ transplants were so morally problematic the practice could only lead to bad outcomes.

When the Devil Commands

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head.

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.

Blair's colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter's homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration -- forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love. Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.

Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.
To his astonishment, he finds that Helen's unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. The building's maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead -- she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.
Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.

Blair's idea is to use Mrs. Walters' naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like the amplifying grid in a vacuum tube.
Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.
Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. He convinces Blair's housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what's in Blair's secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock -- a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads....

Comments: In sharp contrast to the clunky exposition that opens The Man With Nine Lives,  The Devil Commands begins with a portentous shot of a house on the rugged New England coast and an earnest, almost plaintive voiceover from Julian Blair's daughter Anne:

My name is Anne Blair. My father was Dr. Julian Blair. This was my father's house. In Barsham Harbor, on nights like this, when lightning rips the sky apart, why do people close the shutters that face toward my father's house, and lock their doors, and whisper?  Why are they afraid? No one goes near my father's one dares. 

I don't know where my father is. I only know that for one brief, terrible moment, he tore open the door to whatever lives beyond the grave...

Anne's narration pops up from time to time during the film, even though Anne herself has little bearing on the plot.  She is perpetually an outsider, at every turn kept away from the action by Dr. Blair (at one point he physically blocks her from entering his lab; later he sends her to a faraway city, mailing a check to her each month but refusing to communicate with her in any way). It's unusual for a film to have a narrator so far removed from the action, and unusual too for a film to have a narrator as thoroughly unreliable as Anne. She claims not to know why the people of Barsham Harbor lock their doors and whisper about her father -- but that is clearly not true. She insists on pleading Dr. Blair's case to us, trying to convince us of his goodness even when we can see the evidence to the contrary:

People in Barsham Harbor didn't understand my father. They began to talk about him. Slowly they began to fear him...and then to hate him. No one would even speak to him, though he had never hurt any of them -- remember that.  My father never hurt a living person in Barsham Harbor. Never.
Her choice of words is telling: "My father never hurt a living person in Barsham Harbor" is a carefully-constructed sentence if there ever was one. We know Blair had hurt Karl, a "living person" --  but because Karl isn't from Barsham Harbor Anne exempts him.   And Barsham Harbor's non-living persons are carefully exempted from Anne's statement as well.  And there is no acknowledgement, either, to the harm done to the relatives of the dead whose corpses were dug up and used for unauthorized and unethical scientific experiments.

And what about Mrs. Marcy? Surely Dr. Blair is at least partially responsible for her death; and yet he tries to cover it up, just as he had done with Carl's accident, compounding his crime by throwing her body off a cliff.

Nevertheless Anne's narration is intriguing because it forces us to question not only her motives in defending her father but her access to events to begin with.  It adds another layer to what is by far the best of Columbia's cycle of mad-scientist pictures.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Saturday, July 31, 1971: The Soul of a Monster (1942) / Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: George Winson (George Macready) is a famous surgeon and humanitarian who is dying in a city hospital.   An accidental tear in his surgical glove exposed him to an infection, and now he only has hours to live.  It seems everyone in the city has some memory of his kindness and selflessness, and it seems that everyone has joined together in mourning him.

George has come to accept his fate, but his wife Ann (Jeanne Bates) is another story. She is angry that a man who has contributed so much to the world is being taken out of it before his time, while others who do evil and contribute nothing live on.  George's devout friend Fred (Erik Rolf) tries to console her, telling her it is God's will, but Ann will have none of it.  What God, she asks Fred, would allow such an unjust thing to happen? Either God doesn't exist or he has abandoned George; either way, she wants nothing to do with him.  She then says that if any other force in the world -- the Devil, for example -- would intervene and save George, then she would owe that force her allegiance.  And to prove the point, she calls out to the Devil, asking for George to be saved.

At that very moment a woman in black walks along the darkened streets of the city.  She never breaks stride for a moment, and walks right into the path of an oncoming car.  The couple driving the car slam on the brakes, and leap out, thinking they struck her - but no one is there.  The woman in black continues walking, unconcerned at a downed powerline that is sparking only a few feet away from her.  She walks into a building up to the very room where George is dying.

The woman tells those assembled that her name is Lilyan Gregg and that she heard Ann's offer.  Does it still stand?  Ann says it does, and at the woman's word, George begins to recover. 

The next day the newspapers are filled with the amazing news: George Winson has made a seemingly miraculous recovery.  But Fred is deeply disturbed by George's behavior.  He is now distant and cold, no longer the kind and compassionate man he once was.  He snarls at his faithful dog, throwing a pair of hedge clippers at it in a fit of rage.  Fred later discovers that the dog has been killed, and its blood is on George's work gloves.   Ann is having second thoughts too, as George displays an increasingly rude and dismissive attitude toward her.

And there are other strange things: when George holds a flower in his hands, it immediately shrivels and dies.  He seems to have no pulse.  And when Ann accidentally cuts him, he does not bleed....

Comments:  By the mid-1940s, Universal's vaunted Golden Age of horror films was pretty much over.  The vibrant, sumptuous productions of the 1930s  had given way to perfunctory franchise entries (House of Dracula), humdrum mysteries with only meager horror trappings (She-Wolf of London) and low-budget programmers with a distinctly non-supernatural pedigree (House of Horrors).  Meanwhile, interesting things were cooking over at Columbia.  We've already seen Return of the Vampire and its follow-up Cry of the Werewolf; and tonight we're treated to the studio's most Val Lewton-flavored effort, The Soul of a Monster.

This dreamlike film starts out with a surprisingly frank crisis of faith, for a picture of this era: Fred tries to comfort Ann with pious words about God's will, but she throws them back in his face.  What sort of God, she asks, would allow a man who gave selflessly of himself to die, while tyrants are allowed to kill millions and cause untold suffering with impunity?  An insane God, she decides, or a cruel God - or perhaps a God who doesn't exist at all.  Ann tells Fred she will pray to the Devil if that will save George's life, and she does, reasoning that perhaps the Devil "has been done an injustice".  And in response, right on cue, the enigmatic Lilyan Gregg steps - literally - out of the shadows to snatch George Winson from the jaws of death.

Ann's blasphemy is very unusual for a film of this era, as is the character of Lilyan Gregg herself. Hollywood in those days treated religion much the way it treated sex - as something that was important, but too embarrassing to talk about openly.  Thus we can marvel at the frank talk about religious faith as well as the depiction of Lilyan, who might be seen as a minion of Satan, though it seems more likely that she herself is the Devil incarnate.  The Devil is usually depicted in movies as a character who has no power at all, save for that which people choose to give to him of their own free will.  But here, she has the power to overrule what God has decreed if a human wills it to be so, and that makes for an unusual, almost radical, interpretation of Hollywood theology.

Obviously, the Hayes Office would never allow evil to triumph over good in this fashion, so in order to steer clear of the censors, the film must resort to a cop-out ending, but up until that point it's an interesting little what-if picture that manages to convey an agreeably spooky tone.  Val Lewton it ain't, but we nevertheless have some lovely images - Lilyan's walk down the darkened streets in her black dress, for example, is beautifully done, and the gathering around the piano, listening to a performance of the Mephisto Waltz during a raging thunderstorm, is equally atmospheric.

None of the characters are drawn especially well, particularly George Winson.  The problem is that we never see that George was a good man (he is dying as the film opens); we only have various people telling us how good he was.  Thus the advent of a cruel, unfeeling George can't come as too much of a shock -- we've never seen him act in any other way.  As for the other characters -- well, it feels cruel to call them "stock".  The screenwriters seemed to be aiming for "archetypal".  I can't say they succeeded  -- this movie doesn't have quite the intellectual wattage for a fancy term like that.

Night of Terror

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).
Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment.

Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household.

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household -- including the servants -- shares in the inheritance. What's more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?

Comments: This quirky variant of the Old Dark House plot clearly doesn't want to get too deep into the ghoulish stuff, and so it assiduously soft-pedals its scares. In an attempt to compensate for the low-octane thrills, it presents us with an overly busy plot, hoping to keep the audience off balance.  The result is a horror film you can bring your flapper-girl date to.  She won't have to play close attention in order to get the plot points: they aren't subtle.  There are secret passages and seances and a good old-fashioned murder now and then. Nothing that happens really connects with anything else; and if by chance she misses something, don't worry: someone will rush into the room carrying a newspaper with a blaring headline and it will all get explained again.  In fact, the Maniac pins headlines of his own exploits on the bodies of his victims, priving that self-promotion pays.

If there is any protagonist in this picture it must be Wallace Ford's Tom Hartley, who as a newspaperman serves as a proxy for the audience.  He does not belong to the class-conscious world of the Rinehart estate, with its Downton Abbey-style divisions.  He can poke fun at the pretensions of the Rinehart stuffed shirts, just as he mocks the peculiarities of the oddball servants.  Yet at the same time he is able to court Mary Rinehart with his lower middle-class charm.  Tom's social mobility makes him the only active agent in the movie -- even the Maniac is trapped, doomed to keep stabbing people without a motivation.

Watching this film again makes it plain just how insubstantial the character of Degar is, and I found myself wondering how Bela Lugosi's career might have been different if he had turned down roles like this one and The Whispering Shadow's Dr. Strang.  He was offered big money for both these movies, but he was really doing glorified cameos that seemed to diminish him as an actor.  In the end Lugosi wound up like Karl Dane, who was also in The Whispering Shadow: hobbled by a poor command of the English language, unable to find work, and haunted by the loss of a fame that had once seemed permanant.