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.


davidgeister said...

Hurrah!! Thanks for posting, again. I am anxiously awaiting the late 1971 through 1974 stuff, which I vaguely remember. Well done, as usual.

Uncle Mike said...

Thanks! Things have been a mite busy of late, which is why I haven't been posting as frequently as I'd like. Hope to pick up the pace soon. Glad you can stop by now and then.

kochillt said...

Lugosi's disintegration was bolder than the offscreen groans that Universal allowed in 1931, and has only recently been restored. THE BLACK ROOM is a joy for all its predictability, at least until the death of Col. Hassel, after which there is no one left to catch on to Gregor's deception.

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