Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday, September 4, 1971: Cry of the Werewolf (1944) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris' son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal - apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter -- also named Marie LaTour -- has inherited her lycanthropy.
Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don't match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf. ...

Comments: In their indispensable reference work Universal Horrors, Brunas and Weaver make the interesting claim that Cry of the Werewolf was originally conceived as a sequel to the Bela Lugosi vehicle Return of the Vampire, which we saw just last week.  They maintain that early drafts of the script were entitled Bride of the Vampire, but that at some point the decision was make to rework the material into a werewolf picture.*

I'm tempted to say they make this assertion  while discussing 1943's Son of Dracula.  However, it's more accurate to say they make this assertion while conducting a drive-by on poor old Bela Lugosi.  

Look, don't get me wrong.  Universal Horrors is a delightful book.  It's both informative and entertaining.  But it's not perfect.  One of its quirks is an almost pathological hostility toward Lugosi.  No opportunity to ridicule Universal's first Dracula is ever missed.   In this case, the authors hint that Columbia, panic-stricken at the thought of having Lugosi star in the sequel to the (ahem, inexplicably money-making) Return of the Vampire, completely overhauled the project rather than risk allowing the hammy Hungarian to stink up another of their pictures. 

Such a notion might be tempting to those who find Lugosi's screen presence overbearing, but it's unfair. As I've asserted previously, Lugosi was a flawed actor of limited appeal, but he certainly wasn't without talent. His career was hobbled less by his acting than by a combination of short-sighted business decisions and bad luck.  After Dracula made him a star he tended to accept the highest-paying roles on offer, regardless of their merit**.  These were often relatively small "red-herring" roles that did little to keep him in the public eye, and convinced the studios that he was an overvalued commodity. Eventually  he was left scrambling for whatever kind of screen work he could get.  

But we're not here to discuss Bela Lugosi anyway, are we?  We're here to discuss Cry of the Werewolf, one of the few examples of an honest-to-peaches, straight-up-no-chaser horror film offered by Columbia in the mid 1940s.

While not up to the standards of Return of the Vampire, this picture aspires to the same sort of low-budget atmospherics as its predecessor and, obviously, the popular Universal thrillers of the time.

But the big difference between Columbia and Universal horror films is quite evident here.  Columbia didn't have a large staff dreaming up special effects and make-up for its horror pictures.  What would have been elaborate set pieces in Universal films are almost thrown away at Columbia. 

Let me show you what I mean.  Here's a crucial sequence featuring Marie LaTour, werewolf queen:

 Jan Spavero is told by Marie that he's going to sleep with the fishes...or the Gypsy equivalent thereof.

What?!? Marie wouldn't cast me aside like that after so many years of loyal service.   Would she?
 Frightened, he stumbles out of Marie's trailer and attempts to flee the Gypsy camp.
We go back to Marie LaTour, and the camera makes a very quick pan left to the shadow on the wall behind her...
....which immediately begins to change shape..... begins to shrink....
...collapsing into the shape of an animal...

...a wolf!  Awooooooooooooooo!

We see Spavero's feet stumbling through the woods....
Intercut with the werewolf's feet, inexorably pursuing....
The Gypsies in the camp sit impassively....
Looking up only momentarily when they hear Jan's screams come from the woods.

This sequence is interesting for how little we actually see.  No yak hair, no special make-up effects, no time-lapse photography.  Instead, the trickiest effects shots prove to be a moving shadow on the wall and a shot of a dog's feet running through the woods.  That points to a pretty meager effects budget, even by Columbia's standards.

The cast isn't particularly notable: Nina Foch was certainly the biggest name, having played a number of similarly aristocratic roles. Fritz Lieber was a fairly successful character actor who is perhaps best known today as the father of science fiction writer Fritz Lieber, Jr.  Osa Massen played a lot of evil Nazi temptresses during the war, and went on to star in Kurt Neumann's Rocketship X-M (1950).  John Abbot brought his dignified Shakespearean cadence to dozens of movies and countless TV shows throughout the 1950s and 1960s. 

Without question the weakest link in the cast is Stephen Crane, completely in over his head as good-natured doofus Bob.  The girls apparently go for Bob, in spite of the fact that he's as dull as library paste.  Crane wasn't exactly cast against type in that department, yet he still couldn't pull off the role.  Go figure.

The Boogie Man Will Get You

Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.

His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us. Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort. He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Park) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: Hey, did tonight's werewolf movie put you on edge?  Would you like to unwind with a screwball comedy?  You've come to the right place.

Frankly, there isn't much to say about this little Arsenic and Old Lace knock-off that I haven't said before.  Karloff and Lorre seem to enjoy doing a bit of light-hearted comedy for a change; Miss Jeff Donnell seems to be every bit as solid and reliable as Winnie Slade, the character she plays; "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom seems at least plausible as a down-on-his luck salesman; and the story -- well, let's just forget about the story, shall we?

Truth is, the more you focus on the story, the less likely you are to enjoy yourself.  The screenwriters are painfully aware of this, and try to keep things moving quickly enough that the seams won't show.  It doesn't always work, but my advice would be to give them all the assistance you can.  

For example, when Frank Puglia shows up as a demented Italian P.O.W., take a moment to appreciate the man's career.  He was a bread-and-butter character actor who appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows, usually as a kindly priest or doctor, always as what the industry called "ethnic" characters -- Latino / Italian / Greek / etc.   Watching this movie, you can take him at face value: he's a hard-working actor earning a living. And that's a pretty good thing.

*Brunas, Michael, et al: Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931 - 1946. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. 1990, pp 380-381.  I don't think bloggers ever cite book sources on the Internet, but I'm an old-fashioned sort of fellow and I'm doing it anyway.
**Exhibit A: The role of Professor Strang in the 12-chapter serial Whispering Shadows (1933)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Saturday, August 28, 1971: Return of the Vampire (1944) / The Black Room (1935)

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 sanatorium 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: Tonight we have the most delicious sort of pairing one can hope for from a late-night creature feature: a top-notch Bela Lugosi picture followed by a top-notch Boris Karloff picture.  Even better, they are both fairly obscure titles.  We start things off with Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire from 1944.

  In my previous write-up of this picture, I noted the strong revenge subplot that runs through it.  In fact, as far as I can tell this is the earliest Dracula movie where vengeance is the Count's primary motivation.  In the original Dracula, of course, Mina was the object of the vampire's obsession.  In Son of Dracula, it was possession of the Caldwell plantation.  In House of Frankenstein, Dracula was simply an unwilling pawn in Dr. Neimann's revenge plot. 

I know what you're thinking  -- dude, put down the crack pipe, this isn't a Dracula picture.   But we mustn't  kid ourselves. This vampire calls himself Armand Tesla, but even without Lugosi's presence and the vampire's silk-lined cape  (and the fact that Columbia tried to secure the rights to the Dracula name from Universal for this occasion) there is little doubt as to who we're dealing with here.  

Hammer studios clearly borrowed the revenge subplot for its bloodier and sexier forays into Dracula lore in the 1950s.  And even Universal did some cribbing from this picture.

Before Return of the Vampire was made, Dracula movie lore was pretty well established. One of the rules was: if a vampire has a stake driven through his heart, it's game over.  The vampire is utterly destroyed, and it can't come back. 

Return of the Vampire altered that rule.  In this film, a stake merely immobilizes a vampire.  Remove the stake, and the vampire is back and badder than ever.

Just under a year after Return of the Vampire premiered, Universal released House of Frankenstein, which featured the skeleton of Count Dracula, complete with a stake jammed through its ribs.  When the stake was removed, presto!  The vampire reconstituted itself, like
powdered milk in a glass of water.  This sort of tinkering was inevitable as screenwriters began to look for new wrinkles to exploit; but Universal, which had essentially created the vampire movie genre was surprisingly timid about branching out into new territory.  By contrast Hammer wasn't shy at all, eventually making up all kinds of vampire lore on its own.

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, Gregor was the one supposed to die at Anton's hand. "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: At first blush this Columbia thriller seems to aspire to be the sort of  middle-brow costume drama that the Korda brothers made so successfully in the 1930s.  But The Black Room's  production values are too modest for that, the cast too far off the A-list, and the screenplay a bit too lurid.  Karloff gets one very actorly scene where he compares women with pears, and finds them roughly equivalent in terms of utility and shelf life. 

Aside from that, however, his must rely on his canny physical presence to portray the sinister Gregor, and in this department he's quite good.  But in spite of the screenwriter's ham-fisted attempts at Shakespearean gravitas, in the end both his Anton and his Gregor are distinctly lacking in dramatic heft.

There are fancy costumes and ambitious speeches, but at its heart this is an unassuming thriller.  Soon enough we get down to business, which in this case means people being thrown into pits and pretty young women being placed in danger.  The designated woman in danger here is the forgettable Marian Marsh, whose Thea runs the risk of being married to Gregor pretending to be Anton.  Marsh doesn't do much with her role, and we have to conclude that the only reason Thea is regarded as so desireable is simply because there are no other women hanging around the castle.

But we should pause and praise the work of Katherine DeMille, a far more luminous a presence as Mashka, the serving girl unlucky enough to engage in an affair with Gregor.  She gets just what you might expect from such an arrangement, but in the meantime she brings more life to the proceedings than anyone save Karloff himself.

 Most of the picture is taken up with evil twin Gregor's attempt to pass himself off as good twin Anton. This is not the sort of plot that's driven by lust for power, lust for revenge, or just plain old lust.  Nope, tonight we have a kind of early 19th-century Patrick Bateman on a fairly predictable  trajectory toward his own comeuppance.