Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday, October 9, 1971: Bluebeard (1944) / Before I Hang (1940)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Paris, the body of a young woman is fished out of the river Seine. She has been strangled, another victim of the notorious serial killer Bluebeard.  Women are urged to stay in at night, and not to take unnecessary risks - but it's difficult to take precautions when no one knows what Bluebeard looks like.

One evening young Babette (Patti McCarty) and her two friends Constance (Carrie Devan) and Lucille (Jean Parker), knowing that women aren't safe on the streets after dark, decide to walk home together.  On the gaslit streets they meet Gaston Morel, whom Babette recognizes -- he is "The Puppeteer", a painter well-known in Paris for the elaborate puppet operas he stages in the park.  Morel seems charmed to meet the young women, but is especially interested in Lucille, who claims to be entirely unafraid of Bluebeard.  He invites them all to see his show the following night, but it is clear that Lucille is the one he hopes will attend.

The following evening, Morel scans the crowd as he and his puppeteers perform "Faust".  He sees Lucille and after the show invites her backstage.  He tells her that he wishes to paint her; will she sit for him?

Flattered, she tells him that she will.  Meanwhile, Morel's assistant Renee angrily watches his flirtation with the new woman.

Later, Morel returns home to find Renee waiting for him.  She is angry that he is flirting with another new girl, and hurt that there have been other women who have posed for his pictures, women who have temporarily replaced her.  But, she says, "You always return to me."

Morel is dismissive, telling her to go home, but she presses him further.  What, she asks, has happened to the  women he's had dalliances with?  Where have they gone?  Angered, Morel removes his cravat and strangles her with it .  Later, he dumps her body in the river.

The next day, he goes to the police station, and reports Renee missing.  When her body is pulled out of the river he is asked to identify the body.  He does so, telling the police that Renee left the park before he did, and he is unable to say if she left alone or in someone's company.

But the next time Morel sees Lucille, he tells her that what he really wants is for her to make new costumes for his puppets.  By this time we've figured out an important part of Bluebeard's m.o. -- he only strangles women who have posed for the pictures he's painted.  Does the fact that he no longer wants to paint Lucille mean he is becoming genuinely fond of her?

Apparently so --  and Lucille is growing fond of him too.  She mends one of his torn cravats (which will, of course, prove to be an important plot point) and the two are spending more and more time together.

Meanwhile, police inspector Lefevre (Nils Asther) discovers that a painting on display in a Paris gallery has as its subject one of Bluebeard's victims.  He looks for other paintings by the same hand, and sure enough, all of the victims of Bluebeard appear to have sat for paintings.  But the identity of the artist is shrouded in mystery.

Lefevre locates the dealer of the paintings, who will not divulge the name of the artist.  Lefevre conducts a sting operation, arranging for a wealthy patron of the arts to offer an outrageous sum to the dealer -- if he can get the mysterious painter to take a last-minute job.  Tempted by the money, the dealer talks Morel into doing it.  But what Morel doesn't know is that his studio is now surrounded by the police -- and that the woman he is painting is Lucille's younger sister Francine....

Comments:  Bluebeard is a good example of the kind of movies Edgar G. Ulmer made throughout his career: while it isn't a great film, it is far better than it has any right to be.  Shot in 6 days at PRC, it is as good or better than any of Universal's comparable efforts in the mid 1940s. Ulmer makes good use of stock footage, which allows him to successfully evoke 19th-century Paris on the cramped poverty-row soundstages.  

He  handles his cast well, even coaxing a decent performance out of the incurably hammy John Carradine (in fact, this is probably the best performance of Carradine's career, though that isn't saying much).  The only over-the-top moments come as Carradine garrotes his victims -- we always get an extreme close-up of his bulging  eyes -- but for the most part Carradine is surprisingly low-key.  I have to imagine it was Ulmer who compelled him to dial it down; it's hard to believe that Carradine would deliver a restrained performance of his own volition.

Jean Parker plays Lucille, the ostensible protagonist and the focus of Morel's obsession.  You may remember her from the Inner Sanctum vehicle Dead Man's Eyes, in which she played Heather Hayden.  Parker never seems to stand out as an actress, and her features are too sharp to be attractive; it's a stretch to think that Morel would single her out as his new obsession.  Nevertheless, she turns in a good, workmanlike performance.

Teala Loring is somewhat more interesting as Lucille's kid sister Francine. Some reviews of Bluebeard speculate that Francine is the love interest of Inspector Lefevre; but I like to think their connection is more professional.  Francine is a sometime police operative, willing to serve as the bait in a series of risky stings.  Inevitably it catches up to her, but it's nice to see a woman in this era get more to do than just look pretty and be supportive of the leading man.  

Lefevre himself is played by Nils Asther, who so ably played the mystic Agor Singh in Night Monster. 

Interestingly, the serial killer is publicly referred to as "Bluebeard"  (the term refers to  a serial killer who preys upon his own discarded  paramours) long before Morel becomes a suspect.  That is the sort of continuity gap that would sink a bigger-budgeted picture.  But because it's a PRC title, we just shrug and go with it.

Entirely absent from this production is a plot point common to Bluebeard plots -- the killer telling his new lover to never open this locked door, no matter what.  I will admit I kept waiting for that moment, but it never came.

Before I Hang

Synopsis: Dr. John Garth (Boris Karloff) did the best he could for the elderly patient in his care, even giving the man injections of his test serum to reverse the effects of aging. But the serum was a failure. Finally, Garth helped his agonized patient achieve a peaceful death. 

Now convicted of a mercy killing, the judge sentences Garth to death by hanging -- a sentence to be carried out in one month's time.

At the state penitentiary, prison doctor Ralph Howard (Edward Van Sloan) becomes intrigued with Garth's line of research, and he convinces the warden to allow him to work with Dr. Garth in a makeshift lab on the prison grounds. Working quickly, knowing that Garth's execution date is fast approaching, the two are elated when they are able to create a promising test serum.

But fresh blood is needed for further tests, and Dr. Garth asks Dr. Howard to secure blood from a prisoner due to be executed that night. Howard sees no reason why this shouldn't be allowed, and he takes the prisoner's blood after the execution. 

The new batch of serum is finished just minutes before Dr. Garth is taken away to be hanged. Garth injects himself with the new serum, reasoning that the autopsy will allow Howard to examine the effects the serum had on the body.  But moments before the scheduled execution, Garth's sentence is commuted to life in prison.

Within 24 hours, Garth's body has undergone a remarkable change. His heart is stronger, his hair is turning dark -- he seems in every way 20 years younger.

Dr. Howard decides that he will be the next one to try the serum. But as Garth prepares to inject him, he begins to feel strange. Dr. Howard, seeing his face, realizes in an instant what has happened: they used the blood of a three-time murderer to make the serum, and now Garth has absorbed the killer's nature into his bloodstream....

Comments: There's an interesting moment in Before I Hang that takes place in the prison warden's office.  Dr. Garth is expounding on his theory of old age.  He tells the warden that contrary to popular belief, there's no reason why human beings ought to grow old and die.  Theoretically, the human lifespan should be unlimited. He mentions the work of Dr. Alexis Carrell, who proved that individual cells can reproduce indefinitely.  It's only when those cells are at work in the human body, says Dr. Garth, that the stresses of life build up toxins that cause the body to decay. 

Dr. Garth's name-check is intriguing because Carrel was a real person, a Nobel Prize winner who did groundbreaking work in the areas of vascular and open-heart surgery.

He was also interested in the science of aging. The work Dr. Garth mentions was widely known at the time the screenplay was written.  In 1912, Carrel sealed a culture taken from a chicken's heart inside a flask, giving it regular doses of nutrient.  He reported that the cells continued to divide in the flask for more than twenty years, proving that individual cells can reproduce far beyond the lifespan of the creature from which they were taken. Carrel's findings captured the popular imagination, and for decades the idea that cells can live forever outside the body was commonly believed to be true.

But Carrel's research could never be replicated by other scientists, and his claims eventually lost credibility.  In the end scientists eventually discovered what would be known as the "Hayflick limit" -- a cap on the number of times a cell can divide.  The prevailing view today is that cell division is finite because if it weren't, replication errors would eventually creep into the DNA sequence, and cancer would run wild in the organism.  It turns out that humans aren't meant to live forever - just long enough to transmit their DNA to a new generation.  Then their work is done.

Unfortunately, Carrel's interests extended into some unsavory areas.  He was an outspoken proponent of eugenics, and lavished great praise on the Nazi program of exterminating those whom society believed to be inferior. After the German invasion, Carrel used his connections with the infamous Marshall Petain to secure an important medical post in Vichy France. After the country was liberated, Carrell was arrested and charged with treason, but he died in 1944, before he could stand trial.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Saturday, September 25, 1971: Night of Terror (1932) / The Devil Commands (1940)

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?


I wrote about this goofy little Columbia programmer here; this is Night of Terror's third go-round on Horror Incorporated.  It comes off a bit like a stage play, with the main setting the drawing room of the Rinehart mansion.  There are lots of doors in the old house, allowing characters to race in and out from all directions.

There's a plot, of course, but I'd suggest you don't think too much about it. You're better off letting the movie wash over you. 

The murders that occur are the sort that happen in Agatha Christie novels -- they are pieces of an interesting puzzle, and there's not that much at stake, even when the ostensible protagonists are threatened.

As thinly-drawn as many of the characters are, we at least get to see some good actors at work; particularly the under-utilized Bela Lugosi and Sally Blane, who was born Elizabeth Young and was the sister of Loretta Young.  Blane really sparkles here, and serves as an aristocratic counterbalance to Wallace Ford's down-market reporter.

Interestingly, Sally Blane's son Robert Foster was a late-night creature feature host in the 1970s.  He appeared on KTLA in Los Angeles, doing a pretty funny hosting schtick as "Grimsby":

"Night of Terror" used to be incredibly hard to find; but the Internet is gradually making these sorts of movies easier and easier to access.  You can now find the whole thing here.

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, a local woman named 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: Wallace MacDonald was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades who emerged from the silent era, remaking his career less from a desire to expand his horizons than from sheer necessity.  He'd been a silent film actor since 1914, appearing in some notable pictures, including The Primrose Path (1925), opposite Clara Bow; as the title character in the serial Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and as the ill-fated Peter Godolphin in The Sea Hawk (1924).

The silent era ended too abruptly for many actors, who couldn't adapt to the times and were swept out of the business.  But MacDonald turned to writing with some success (his credits included the Gene Autry vehicle The Phantom Empire, 1935), and had even better luck as a producer at Columbia, starting with Parole Racket in 1937, and carrying on through a slew of unspectacular but solid programmers, including The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which has popped up a few times on Horror Incorporated, as well as a cycle of Boris Karloff mad scientist pictures, all of which we've seen late at night on channel 5: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939); The Man With Nine Lives (1940); Before I Hang (1940) ; and tonight's feature, The Devil Commands.

Of the four, this one is by far the best, for a number of reasons.  In a nutshell, this was the only film of the series to be directed by Edward Dmytryk, who manages to imbue the low-budget affair with a keen atmosphere of dread.  The scene in which the soft-spoken Karloff faces off with the soft-spoken sheriff played by Kenneth MacDonald ( a stage name, by the way  - he is no relation to Wallace MacDonald) is memorable because it's played so differently than similar scenes in similar pictures.

The premise of The Devil Commands is no less absurd than those of the other
Karloff films at Columbia, but somehow Dmytryk manages, through small tricks of verisimilitude, to pull it off.  He seems to understand that horror films must remain plausible, even when the premise is unlikely - in fact, it plausibility becomes more important with an unlikely premise, not less important.

And unlike the other Karloff mad scientist pictures at Columbia, this one doesn't actually feature a mad scientist at all.  The grief-stricken Dr. Blair is motivated not by revenge nor bloodlust nor vanity.   He wants, quite simply, to be reunited with someone he has lost, and it is this desire that connects him with the gullible Karl and the cynical Mrs. Walters.  In a sense all three are in the same business, though they are all approaching the afterlife from different angles.  Karl is a wide-eyed believer; Mrs. Walters a crooked seer; and Blair a scientist who believes that his rational approach will make the afterlife logical and accessible to him.  He does learn his lesson, but as is often the case in these sort of movies, he learns it too late.