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 fiancée, 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.


kochillt said...

You certainly make THE SOUL OF A MONSTER more interesting than it was the last time I saw it. Rose Hobart and her hair stylist were well cast, but I felt that George Macready was the wrong choice for the dying humanitarian, much better in I LOVE A MYSTERY. NIGHT OF TERROR provides Wallace Ford's first wisecracking reporter opposite Lugosi (THE MYSTERIOUS MR. WONG, THE APE MAN), and just might be the most bearable. It was interesting to see Sally Blane, whose older sister, Polly Ann Young, would appear with Bela in 1941's INVISIBLE GHOST. 1933 was the year that younger sister Loretta did THE DEVIL'S IN LOVE with Lugosi, then THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD with Karloff.

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