Friday, December 27, 2013

Saturday, December 25, 1971: The Lady and the Monster (1944) / Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller's residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he's obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn't above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances of his getting an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller's assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.

The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man's brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man's head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name "W. H. Donovan" over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory's behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory's body is being possessed by Donovan's brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan's will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan's connection with the man?  And -- what will Donovan's brain do in order to keep Cory's body under its control?

Comments: Curt Siodmak scripted a number of successful horror films in the 1940s, most of which we have already seen on Horror Incorporated.  But he's probably best known as the author of the bestselling novel Donovan's Brain,  first published in 1942.  It was adapted for the screen several times, most successfully in a 1953 version starring Lew Ayres (interestingly, the radio anthology series Suspense also did a two-part adaptation in 1943, with Orson Welles playing Cory).  The Lady and the Monster was the first attempt to bring it to the screen, and while it isn't as good as the better-known Lew Ayres version, it's not bad.

In this version Cory works for an older and somewhat creepier scientist named Mueller, who is played with teutonic sternness by Eric von Stroheim.  There's no clear reason why this character was added.  Perhaps it was felt a romantic triangle would provide a human element to the wacky brain-in-a-glass-jar plotline, or that Cory couldn't make the questionable ethical decisions he made in the book and still retain the sympathy of the audience; or maybe the screenwriter reasoned that a disembodied brain bobbing around in an aquarium didn't make the best antagonist.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach.  On the minus side it dilutes the story somewhat, and makes Cory, who is supposed to be the protagonist, a less active agent than he is in the novel and in the 1953 version.

On the plus side we get to see Eric von Stroheim in front of the camera, and he's always great to watch.  He glowers and murmurs ominously, and adds a good deal of menace to the goings-on at the Castle.  But in the end he isn't really necessary.  W.H. Donovan -- at least as he's refracted through the brain and into Cory's body -- is antagonist enough, and there is a real sense of mystery and menace surrounding it, enough to set this opus apart from the other poverty-row efforts we've seen recently, all of which seem to involve scientists trying to extend life beyond its normal limits.

The Lady and the Monster is often singled out for ridicule thanks to the presence of Vera Ralston (nee Hruba), a European figure skater whom Republic Pictures head Herbert J. Yates tried to develop as a movie star. The fact that Yates and Ralston were romantically linked shouldn't come as a surprise, especially when you see Ralston act.  Like Marion Davies before her, Ralston's conspicuous lack of talent made her something of a punchline in the movie industry; but in fact, while Ralston isn't great, she isn't terrible either.  She does not embody an Acquanetta-level amateurishness, but is in fact on a par with a moderately talented but forgettable college thespian. She does all right as Cory's worried girlfriend, but seems somewhat out of her depth as a lab assistant, flailing around in a flustered sort of way every time Dr. Mueller shouts for a gigli saw -- which he does quite a lot.

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: Night of Terror has proven to be something of a second-feature staple on Horror Incorporated.  I don't imagine it gets seen much at all these days; like a lot of titles from this era, it has pretty much dropped from obscurity into oblivion since broadcast TV quit showing old movies.  But I see it on a fairly regular basis.  To be honest,  it's not a film that benefits from repeat viewing. 

One of the most puzzling things about this film - indeed, a number of horror films of the 1930s and 1940s -- was the use the studio made of Bela Lugosi.  If you look at the poster above, you see Lugosi's face prominently displayed, and his name (BELA "Dracula" LUGOSI) is given top billing.  Yet Lugosi is not only in a supporting role, but a fairly small one.  As we've noted in the past, he functions as a red herring.  

His prominence in the promotional materials seems tacit admission of his status as a bankable star; but the uses to which he's put in movies like this indicate that there was a lack of trust in his ability to actually carry a movie. This is the sort of paradox that provides ammunition to both the pro-Lugosi and anti-Lugosi film writers.  And they aren't shy about sniping away at each other.

Universal Horrors, the influential Brunas and Weaver overview of Universal's golden age, never missed an opportunity to skewer Lugosi as a dreadful ham unfettered by any discernible talent. But the authors were at a loss to explain why Lugosi's infrequent starring roles (e.g., Return of the Vampire) kept making money.

I've always been fairly agnostic on the question.  Lugosi was unquestionably a ham, but the early sound era favored acting styles that we think of today as overly broad. While he was a fairly limited actor who made poor career decisions, he did have a certain appeal and the studios knew it. Whatever doubts they harbored about Lugosi were in spite of, rather than because of, his performance at the box office.

The truth is, while dollar signs are the big persuader in Hollywood, they don't always overcome personal opinion.  That Lugosi's star turns made money no doubt carried some weight, but his films evidently didn't make enough money to burn through the prejudices that were already in place.

William Goldman once observed that in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything". But of course the decision-makers in Hollywood think they know everything. The execs were all certain that Lugosi's films couldn't make money.  When they didn't, that was taken as evidence that they were right.  And when they did -- well, they just decided not to spend much time thinking about that.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Saturday, December 17, 1971 (Midnight): Three Strangers (1946) / Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: London barrister Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is walking along the street when he meets beautiful Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  After a bit of flirtatious small talk, she invites him up to her apartment.  Once there, he is dismayed to find another man already there, a cheerful tippler named Johnny West (Peter Lorre).  Johnny was lured up to her apartment with the same come-hither glance that roped in Arbutny.

Crystal reveals the reason for bringing the two men to her apartment.  Crystal has in her possession a statue of  Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of good fortune. According to legend, Crystal says, if three strangers make a wish over the statue at midnight of the Chinese new year, the wish will be granted. If there is one wish they can agree on, they can all share in the good fortune provided by Kwan Yin.

Johnny has an Irish sweepstakes ticket, and he suggests they all wish for it to be a winner, then sign an agreement to divide any winnings from the ticket.

The others quickly agree to this, and a contract of sorts is hastily written up.  The clock strikes midnight as the strangers concentrate on their wish, and it seems for a moment that the statue is smiling at them; but soon the moment is gone and the three go their separate ways.

We then follow the strangers in turn and discover that each one has arrived at a moment of crisis in their lives. Crystal's estranged husband David (Alan Napier) has fallen in love with a Canadian woman and wants a divorce, but Crystal refuses to grant one. Arbutny has made a series of unwise investments with money entrusted to him by the widowed Lady Beladon (Rosalind Ivan). Facing professional ruin when the secret gets out, he has decided to propose marriage to her in order to conceal his financial mismanagement.  Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen in with a rough crowd, and he is currently being sought for a crime he didn't commit. His only hope for redemption lies with his girlfriend, the devoted Janet (Marjorie Riordon).

Johnny ends up in the hospital, and only by chance discovers that the Irish sweepstakes ticket won.  But unbeknownst to him, Arbutny and Shackleford have each decided, for their own reasons, that Johnny need never know about the money....

Comments: There is so little to this Warner Brothers trifle that could be considered horror -- even borderline horror -- that I actually went back to the Minneapolis Tribune archives to make sure I had the right movie.  According to the schedule, I did.  But I suspect the audience tuning in on this particular night didn't agree - which leads us, inevitably, to the late lamented Monster Chiller Horror Theater.

It seems likely that this movie found its way onto the KSTP schedule because of a) its slight element of fantasy and b) the presence of Peter Lorre in the cast.  A newspaper logline might lead you to believe that the fantasy elements are stronger than they actually are.  And I suspect that lured many an unsuspecting viewer to the tube that evening.

In fact, horror movie fans weren't the only ones likely to feel cheated.  The presence of Lorre and Greenstreet (and the Warner Brothers logo) fooled many over the years into thinking that it's a film noir.  But it's far too light a confection to fit into that category either.

Okay, so it's not a horror film.  How does it stack up as a movie?

I wish that I could answer that, but as I spent the whole time trying to weigh its (ultimately non-existent) horror content, I'm afraid I didn't really give the movie a fair chance.  Much like the Ingmar Bergman movie on Monster Chiller Horror Theater, it's got to be judged on whether it delivers the scares.  And unfortunately it doesn't.  The tenuous fantasy element is just a bit of whimsy, really, and doesn't drive the plot to any real extent.  But Peter Lorre is quite winning as Johnny West, and Sydney Greenstreet is pleasant to watch in any role. Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite engaging as the one who dreams up the whole scheme and she is also, as you might expect, as beautiful as the dawn.

 Behind the Mask

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his private hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: Listen up, you mug. We're gonna watch Behind the Mask again. Why?  Well, you sat through Three Strangers, didn't ya?

Sure, you felt a little cheated when nothing scary happened in the first feature. And Behind the Mask isn't exactly a horror movie either.  But it's a real meat-and-potatoes murder story, buster. Jack Holt is such a tough guy he shoots himself in the arm, just to gain the confidence of his fellow hoods. Dr. Steiner's got a hospital where he gives people unnecessary operations.  Everybody's scared of hospitals, right?

Plus the evil Mr. X has more high-tech gadgets than a Bond villain.  He's even got a telephone answering machine!  With that kind of futuristic technology, the feds are going to have a hard time catching up with him!

Look, I've written about this movie before, and I don't have a lot more to say about it.  That's because I'm a man of few words -- a man of action.  And this is the kind of movie a real man can sit down and watch with a beer in his hand. You're not going to find a lot of people sitting around and crying or talking about their feelings. Nope, it's all prison escapes, shootouts, secret passages, betrayals, fistfights and manly dialogue. And mister, that's my kind of movie.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Saturday, December 17, 1971 (Noon): The Strange Mr. Gregory (1945) / The Face of Marble (1944)

Synopsis: A famous magician called Gregory the Great (Edmund Lowe) is experimenting with an ancient method of suspended animation.  He has managed to place himself in a trance so deep that it is indistinguishable from death. Moreover, he is able to maintain this trance for days on end.  His butler / personal assistant Riker (Frank Reicher) assists him, and he is the only one who knows about Gregory's mysterious endeavors.

One night, at the conclusion of his stage show, admiring amateur magician John Randall (Donald Douglas) and his wife Ellen (Jean Rogers) come to Gregory's dressing room to visit him.  Riker tells them that Mr Gregory never receives visitors.  But Gregory, noticing the beautiful Ellen, immediately invites the couple in.  John Randall is quite excited to meet Gregory -- so excited that he doesn't notice that Gregory's attention is fixed almost entirely on Ellen.

The fact that Ellen is a) married and b) uninterested in him does not deter Gregory in the least. He decides to make Ellen his.  He gets Randall to invite him to his home, for a gathering of the local amateur magician's club.  In front of many onlookers, he shows Randall how to make a slip-noose that can easily be used as a garrote.  Later, seeing Ellen walk out onto the back patio alone, he follows her. Using his powers of hypnotism, he draws Ellen to him and embraces her, just in time for Randall to see what he's up to.  Angered by the liberties he's taking, Randall throws Gregory out of the house.

The next day, Gregory sends Ellen a dozen roses. She throws them out, but the next day, he sends eleven -- and the next day ten, and the day after that nine.  Eventually Randall finds out about this flowery countdown, and goes to confront Gregory. 

To Randall's surprise, Mr. Gregory is found dead the next morning, strangled with the very same garrote he had demonstrated at the party.  Riker sees to Gregory's burial, but soon he too is strangled in the same way, after writing a note implicating Randall.

Randall finds himself on trial for a double homicide, and the prosecution's case is strong: Randall had means, motive and opportunity. But just when things are at their bleakest, a surprise witness arrives to testify at the trial -- Gregory's twin brother Lane Talbot.  Talbot explains to the court that Gregory was a cad, and he might even be considered an evil man. No one should be judged too harshly for doing away with him.  In light of this testimony, the jury spares Randall the death penalty.

With Randall safely in prison, Lane Talbot begins worming his way into a grateful Ellen's life.  But Ellen's friend Sheila (Marjorie Hoshelle) is becoming suspicious.  Is Lane Talbot who he says he is?  Or is this the sinister Mr. Gregory, alive and hiding in plain sight?

Comments: The very first image we see in The Strange Mr. Gregory is this:

Which for some reason always reminds me of this:

We've been to the cinematic equivalent of the emergency room a few times, in spite of the warning provided by Monogram label.  But let's ignore the warning and chug down the contents of the bottle again, shall we?

If the name Gregory the Great sounds familiar, it's probably because Lon Chaney, Jr. sported a similar sobriquet ("Gregor the Great") in The Frozen Ghost.  And  the whole set-up is somewhat reminiscent of a contemporary PRC effort, The Mask of Diijon.  Nevertheless, The Strange Mr. Gregory benefits greatly from the presence of Edmund Lowe  (Chandu the Magician, The Great Impersonation) and Jean Rogers (Flash Gordon), both of whom are, as befits a Monogram production, talented actors a bit past their prime. And the script actually starts out pretty well, as we see Gregory, apparently dead, lying on his back with his eyes wide open.  It's an attention-grabbing opening, especially noteworthy because Monogram's low budgets usually meant a distinct lack of visual flair: in fact we're usually treated to an excessive use of close-ups and two-shots in order to draw attention away from the threadbare sets.  In fact, the audience for Gregory the Great's stage is compsed entirely of stock footage.

The opening shot of dead Mr. Gregory is, of course, misdirection -- a clever shorthand of what is to come.  And the movie does a good job keeping us guessing about just what Gregory's game is.

The movie stalls, however, as soon as the sleight-of-hand is done and Gregory's plan becomes clear. Gregory's pursuit of Ellen is what makes the whole movie go, yet there is little to convince us that Ellen is really what Gregory wants.  He has set his heart on her after meeting her exactly once, and his obsession with her seems to have as much to do with her indifference to him as it does with her beauty (her personality can't possibly figure into it -  he never has an extended conversation with her during the entire picture).. Love at first sight seems to be a flighty thing for a man as calculating as Gregory.

All the same, this picture provides a stronger script and better acting than we normally get in a poverty row production. The operating philosophy of Monogram was that the first draft and the first take were always good enough, so we need to be forgiving of the process and welcoming of whatever glimmers of intelligence and even (dare I say it) quality that seep through. 

It's hard to overstate the impact Edmund Lowe has on this picture.  He carries it effortlessly, providing Gregory with a droll sense of irony that wasn't necessarily intended. Lowe specialized in playing just the sort of charming cad that Gregory happens to be, making me wonder if the script was written with Lowe in mind (my guess is that it probably was).

Jean Rogers is quite lovely as Ellen, though the screenwriters felt it necessary to keep re-emphasizing that she's not attracted to Gregory at all. This was clearly done to make Ellen more sympathetic to the audience, but as an unintended side effect Gregory's motivation becomes more problematic.  It's not unusual for people to want what they can't have, of course, but most guys who murder people and fake their own deaths for the love of a woman usually have the woman on board first, at least to some extent.  Would Walter Neff have murdered Phyllis Dietrichson's husband if she had never given him a second glance?  Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

The Face of Marble

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Randolph (John Carradine)  lives comfortably in a large seaside house with his wife Elaine (Claudia Drake). Working in the basement with an array of high-voltage appliances, Randolph and his assistant David (Robert Shayne) are trying to find a method of bringing the dead back to life.

As the movie opens, Randolph and David are trying to restore to life a drowned sailor they found washed up on the shore. David is uneasy with this, fearing that they have crossed a moral line; but Randolph insists that they can't do any harm to a man who's already dead.

As they apply higher and higher voltages to the body, Randolph notes that the face of the sailor has taken on a stone-like appearance.  As the two men watch, the sailor sits up, then stands, but suddenly collapses, dead.  The experiment has failed, but Randolph feels they were very close to success.  He notes that the electrical generator has burned out, and  he goes into town to get a replacement.

The next day the local chief of police comes to visit Randolph, who had earlier alerted the authorities a body had washed up on the shore. The chief says the sailor Randolph found died under curious circumstances. --  an autopsy has revealed he was electrocuted.  Furthermore, the sheriff notes that Randolph had gone into town to buy a replacement generator, and he wonders if there is a connection. Randolph tries to laugh it off, but it's clear that the police chief is suspicious.

Meanwhile, we learn that Elaine has fallen in love with David.  Randolph is entirely unaware of this; and David's behavior is quite above-board, but the Randolph's maid Maria, who's very loyal to Elaine, practices voodoo, and plants a doll under David's pillow - one that she believes will make him fall in love with her mistress.  Meanwhile, Dr. Randolph, noticing David's growing uneasiness around the house, arranges for David's girlfriend Linda (Maris Wrixon) to come and visit.  This only increases the tension in the household, and before long Linda becomes troubled by the house's odd vibe and leaves.

Dr. Randolph decides to try the experiment again -- this time on Elaine's beloved Great Dane Brutus.  He and David fail to revive the dog.  But before long, they hear Brutus barking from another room.  The dog is alive, but somehow changed: it has an odd, stony faced appearance, seems to have turned savage in the presence of humans, and has an odd ability to walk through walls.

Unexpectedly, Elaine dies, and Dr. Randolph can only think of one way to save her --by reviving her the same way he revived Brutus, and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be....

Comments: Hoo boy, another Monogram picture, and perhaps not coincidentally, another picture about scientists working on a way to bring the dead back to life. This no doubt seemed like a jolly good idea back when Frankenstein premiered. But really guys, enough already.

The problem with The Face of Marble isn't that it's bad (though it isn't good, exactly); it's that it never quite figures out what sort of movie it wants to be, and lurches from one disconnected plot point to another until time runs out.  Using electricity to revive the dead and stealing corpses for the experiments is borrowed from countless movies that in turn borrowed from Frankenstein; the voodoo maid could have come from Night of Terror or I Walked With a Zombie or a dozen other movies. The small-town chief of police who keeps stopping by for friendly "chats" about sinister doings about town is equal parts The Devil Commands and Son of Frankenstein.

Only two plot points come across as even slightly original.  The love triangle stands out because it's Elaine, not one of the men, who wants to change the romantic equation.  In this era, women characters were distinctly lacking in agency, particularly involving matters of sexuality.  By introducing Maria and her black magic, the movie cheats a bit, taking some of the onus off Elaine.  But there's no way around the fact that Elaine hungers for something she doesn't have and which society says she shouldn't want.  And this is made more interesting by the fact that the movie chooses not to stack the deck against her husband, Dr. Randolph. He is not depicted as a jerk or a boor.  To the contrary, he is charming and generous to those around him, certainly more likable and lively a character than stuffed-shirt David.

The other point of interest is the mysterious transformation of Brutus. The dog's personality changes as a result of the experiment -- he becomes savage -- and he also gains the ability to move through solid objects, which even for a movie like this is an unexpected side effect. And so it's a bit novel to have the dog wandering around the house, walking through solid walls.  And later, when Elaine inevitably undergoes the same treatment, she and the dog become a tag team, moving through solid objects like ghosts in a spooky seaside manor.  

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not a John Carradine fan but I have to admit that I liked him here.  He plays a character not unlike the one he played in The Invisible Man's Revenge, which perhaps not coincidentally was the other Carradine performance I liked.  I never find the man's evil characters interesting or compelling, but for some reason I find him more believable as a good-natured (but slightly naive) tinkerer. 
 Claudia Drake is perfectly acceptable as Elaine, and Robert Shayne gets all of his lines right as David.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, December 11, 1971: The Walking Dead (1936) / Soul of a Monster (1944)

Synopsis: Mob attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is dead certain he's got Judge Shaw (Joe King) scared -- so scared that he's sure to acquit Nolan's underworld client.  But to his surprise, Judge Shaw doesn't knuckle under, and the man is sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing.

For the mob, this is intolerable. Shaw has to be taken care of, or future mob threats won't carry any weight.  The trouble is, any action against Shaw will implicate Nolan and his associates. 

A solution is found in one John Ellman (Boris Karloff) a quiet man who's just finished a stretch in prison, thanks to Judge Shaw. Mob fixer Loder (Barton MacLane)  arranges for Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to bump into Ellman, strike up a conversation, and offer him a job. Posing as a private detective, Trigger tells Ellman that Shaw's wife, suspicious of an affair, has hired him to shadow the judge. He wants Ellman to stake out Shaw's house and take notes on his comings and goings.

This, of course, establishes Ellman's presence outside the judge's house for several successive nights.  And on the last night Ellman returns to his car to find a body lying in the back seat -- that of Judge Shaw.  But as luck would have it, a young couple -- Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are passing by and witness the shady characters planting the body in Ellman's car.

Soon Elman is on trial for Shaw's murder -- and just to make sure he's convicted, Nolan himself is representing the unlucky ex-con.

Nancy and Jimmy debate whether to get involved in the case, knowing that the reach of the mob is quite long.  In the end they decide to come forward with what they know -- but it's too late, and Ellman is executed for the crime.

But the young couple's employer Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) himself steps forward with a radical suggestion: with the experimental technique Beaumont has developed, Ellman can be brought back to life....

Comments:  Hey, remember The Return of Dr. X  from just a couple a weeks ago?  This was the  Michael Curtiz thriller that starred a miscast Humphrey Bogart in the title role.  Return had been written for Boris Karloff during his three-picture deal with Warner Brothers, but by the time the script was finished Karloff had fulfilled his contract and moved on. Tonight we get to see one of the films Karloff actually made for the studio.  

One thing that jumps out at you about The Walking Dead is that it's definitely a Warner picture.  It begins like any number of Warner crime dramas, with fast-talking mobsters, cheap gunsels, a tough-but-well-meaning D.A., and a courageous judge who refuses to knuckle under to the hoodlums who are threatening his family. And fitting right in is Karloff himself as an unlucky ex-con, already wrongly convicted once, who's being set up to take the fall for one doozy of a murder.

The only thing that can save John Ellman is the testimony of a young couple that witnessed the body being dumped into Ellman's car.  So the first half of The Walking Dead ends with a race against time: will Nancy and her boyfriend  step forward in time to exonerate Ellman?  They do, but the person they contact isn't the D.A., but Ellman's own attorney, who wants Ellman dead.  He makes sure to wait until the very last minute before contacting the D.A.  Even so, it's a very near thing, and there's considerable tension as we wait for the governor's phone call, which comes only seconds too late.  It should be noted that these death row scenes are very well done, and are really the high point of the movie.

Upon Ellman's death, The Walking Dead changes into another picture entirely.  It happens that the young lovers are scientists,  assisting the kindly Dr. Beaumont with his experiments, which involve artificial stimulation of the heart. Thus Dr. Beaumont, finding out they are too late, urgently requests that the standard autopsy be suspended; he wants to try to revive Ellman using his ground-breaking technique.

Ellman is successfully revived, and while he has a limp (and a shock of white hair reminiscent of Bogart's in The Return of Dr. X) he's actually doing great for a guy who had 10,000 volts run through him earlier in the day.  But here's the funny thing: The Walking Dead now changes into yet another movie, shifting gears from science fiction to horror.  Suddenly Ellman, fresh off the boat from the Great Beyond, now has a couple of preternatural abilities: he can recognize the men responsible for his unjust execution, even if he hasn't met them; and he has the means to punish them.

His method of execution is grimly amusing: he shows up where each man happens to be (it doesn't matter where they go, he seems able to find them) and slowly limps toward them, glowering.  The freaked-out hoods panic and fall out windows, or stumble onto their own firearms just as they discharge, or run out in front of moving trains. Meanwhile, Dr. Beaumont wants to quiz Ellman about what he's seen beyond the grave. He goes a bit overboard in his efforts and winds up looking like a bit of a nut; even when Ellman's dying (again) of a gunshot wound Beaumont won't stop yapping about it.

Karloff turns in a great performance here as the tormented Ellman, and Ricardo Cortez is absolutely perfect as slick mob lawyer Nolan.  Marguerite Churchill is a welcome presence in any movie, but unfortunately her part is so thinly written that very little of her considerable charm shows through. Edmund Gwenn's part isn't much better, but Gwenn is such a likable guy that he makes his rather pedestrian role his own.  We also get to see Joe Sawyer in a small role. Sawyer was a hard-working character actor who didn't appear in much horror or science fiction; but he would do a memorable turn in Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space in 1953.

The Soul of a Monster

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:  This low-key Columbia thriller is somewhat less interested in telling a story than it is in delivering a sermon, but to its credit it tries hard to be different.  Lacking much in the way of budget it goes for the  stylishness that Val Lewton brought to his horror films at RKO. Like most of the Lewton imitators (and there were a lot of them in the mid-40s)  it doesn't entirely succeed, but it stands out as an interesting curio.

As I've noted before, Ann's angry denunciation of God, and her blatant call for the Devil's assistance, is pretty daring for the 1940s. In those days religious faith, when it was discussed in films at all, was something that characters would hold onto firmly but express only in the vaguest terms.  Never would a character express doubt about God's existence or intentions, even obliquely; and summoning the Devil was normally reserved for only the most corrupt and dissolute characters.

It should be noted that there was nothing in the old Production Code that prohibited Soul of a Monster from taking this approach; rather, seems to have been more a concession to popular taste. The Hayes office was more concerned with language (no use of "God" or "Christ"" in any but reverent way)  how the clergy was depicted (they could never be revealed to be buffoons or criminals) and how criminality was rewarded (bad guys had to get their comeuppance in the end). In the main, it was specific actions, rather than themes, that got the attention of industry censors.

The Devil, as embodied by the mysterious Lilyan Gregg, appears to have an interesting m.o.   Rather than going for quantity over quality, as the Devil is wont to do in books and movies, here the Devil sees an opportunity to alter the trajectory of one key do-gooder's life, thus corrupting all the people who look up to him. 

Most of the films we've seen on Horror Incorporated have enjoyed decent home video releases, many of them struck from restored negatives. This means that the on-screen images we see today are usually better than would have been broadcast on TV back in the 70s.

But some films, like this one, were never released on home video at all.  Obtaining these titles on DVD is possible, but it can be expensive, and the discs aren't usually of commercial quality. As you can see by the screen shots I've posted,  the DVD I own was pulled from very poor source material; the print is so murky it looks like it was photographed from the bottom of a swimming pool, and the nighttime scenes are so dark it's often unclear what's going on.  The sound is muddy and almost incomprehensible in places.  

But as Columbia is unlikely to invest in a restoration and video release of such an obscure title, we're lucky we have any extant copies at all.  Fortunately, we haven't encountered a Horror Incorporated title that's completely lost.  At least, not yet. One film, The Man Who Returned To Life, was listed as a lost film on some collector sites, but happily you can't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saturday, December 4, 1971: Isle of the Dead (1945) / Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Synopsis: During the First Balkan War of 1912, General Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff) punishes one of his subordinates in the Greek army, an officer whose troops arrived late to the front during the battle that has just concluded.  Despite the officer’s protests, and despite the battle's evident success, Pherides strips him of rank and gives him a pistol, allowing him to commit suicide.  This cold-blooded behavior is questioned by American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer). But Pherides replies that what might seem like cruelty is simply grim necessity.  War, the general says, does not allow for mistakes or excuses. He notes that the punished officer was an old friend of his.  

Walking outside with Davis, Pherides points out the men who are hauling bodies from the battlefield on a cart.  They are working late into the night, the general says, because the bodies must be disposed of immediately.  Cholera and septicemia are constant hazards on the battlefield. Once diseases of that kind begin to spread, there is little to stop them, and they can quickly wipe out a fighting force.

The general mentions that his own wife died many years ago, and that she is buried in a crypt on a nearby island, an island that serves solely as a cemetery.  The two decide to go and visit the grave, and they take a rowboat over to the island.  But the general is distressed to find that his wife’s grave has been desecrated; in fact all the coffins in his wife’s crypt have been broken into, and now the bodies are missing.   The two are about to return to the mainland when they hear a woman singing a haunting melody.  This surprises both men, since they were unaware that anyone else was on the island.

Following the singing, they find a number of people at the caretaker’s house. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) is an archeologist whose work on the island years ago incited the locals to desecrate graves in search of valuable antiquities. Mortified, Albrecht retired from his profession and has been living on the island ever since, having bought the caretaker's house from Madam Kyra (Helene Thimig).

Also staying on the island during the fighting on the mainland are St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife,  the ailing Mary (Katherine Emery), and the nervous Mr. Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).  There is also Thea (Ellen Drew), a lovely young woman whose singing drew the men to the house.

Madam Kyra is convinced there is evil afoot in the house, and she draws General Pherides aside to tell him that she suspects the presence of a "vorvalacka"  -- a supernatural being that suffuses itself with life by draining the health and vitality of those around it.  Pherides laughs off this suggestion, telling her that he is too old to believe such stories.

Davis wants to stay overnight in the caretaker's house, as he hasn't slept in a real bed in months.  Though he doesn't mention it, he'd also welcome the opportunity to get to know Thea better.  Pherides reluctantly agrees, figuring that he'll be able to inspect the shore artillery at first light on his way back to camp.  However, during the night Mr. Robbins dies.  Knowing that Robbins' symptoms are consistent with an outbreak of septicemia, Pherides summons the camp physician.  Sure enough, Robbins is declared to have been killed by the plague.  This means that the islanders are quarantined, and no one can come or go from there, including the camp doctor, reporter Davis or Pherides himself.

One by one, those on the island fall to the plague.  Madam Kyra insists that the deaths on the island aren't caused by plague, but by  the vorvalacka.  And Pherides, that practical, world-weary man of facts and reason, begins to wonder if perhaps she is right. Maybe the sinister being exists after all, and maybe it is none other than  the beautiful Thea herself, who remains the very picture of health even as those around her are dying of the plague....

Comments:  Isle of the Dead is the first Val Lewton film to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated, and while it is considered to be one of Lewton's lesser works, it perfectly captures why his movies have had such an impact on audiences through the years.  Lewton's approach to horror is unique. His movies are atmospheric,  lyrical, almost dreamlike in the way they unfold.  Their themes tend to be existential: death is always lurking just off-camera, and -- inevitably -- something beyond death too.

The title, as well as the haunting image of the island itself, is taken from a famous 19th-century painting by Arnold Bocklin.  The painting depicts an island enclosed by forbidding stone cliffs.  Towering cypress trees -- strongly associated with cemeteries -- grow in the island's center. A boat is being rowed to the island seawall; a hooded figure in white stands in the bow, just behind a white object which is usually interpreted as a coffin.

Lewton was both frightened and fascinated by the painting as a child and he clearly wanted to make a film that captured its aura of mystery.

The plot moves forward in a leisurely way, slowly building a sense of dread rather than trying to shock or terrify the audience.  This tactic actually works quite well; we are inevitably drawn quite skillfully into the movie's reality.   Lewton is forced to depend on a keen eye rather than a big budget to render its carefully-constructed verisimilitude. With a few historical references and modest costumes, he manages to convincingly set his film in the midst of the First Balkan War (all the scenes are shot on fairly small soundstages, and the distant view we have of the island is a matte painting).   There are, in fact, only 11 speaking roles in the film. 

Lewton's protagonists tend to be practical and fairly unimaginative people,  who are drawn unwillingly into the world of the strange and the supernatural. In Cat People, a nautical engineer marries a foreign woman with a deadly family curse; in I Walked With a Zombie a nurse finds herself mixed up with black magic when she takes a job in the Caribbean; and in Isle of the Dead a battle-hardened general comes to believe in the fearsome vorvalacka .

Interestingly, the success of Lewton's signature style had no impact whatsoever on the way his films were sold.  If you were to judge by the marketing materials, Karloff plays just another glowering nut.  "ABANDON ALL HOPE!  FOR THIS IS THE ISLE OF THE DEAD!" the trailer screams. "RULED BY BORIS KARLOFF....WHO SEALS THE DOOM OF ALL WHO DARE ESCAPE!"

Of course Karloff's character isn't at all what the trailer leads you to believe. He isn't a lunatic, doesn't "rule" the island, and he isn't sealing anybody's doom -- in fact, he forbids the others from leaving the island in order to prevent the plague from spreading.

  Lewton had pretty much cornered the market on this sort of atmospheric fare since he was named the head of RKO's horror unit in 1942.  His first project was Jacque Tournier's Cat People in 1942, a low-budget hit that gave him a remarkable amount of creative freedom with the studio.

In spite of the catch-penny titles (I Walked With a Zombie is guaranteed to trigger a snort of derisive laughter from those who haven't seen it) these films are quite sophisticated, and Karloff always seemed grateful to have appeared in this film as well as Lewton's Bedlam and The Body Snatcher.  It's tempting to say that Val Lewton's early demise cut short his career  (he died in 1951, at the age of 46) but the last of his influential cycle of films came some five years earlier.  But he left behind a remarkable body of work, absolutely unlike that of any other horror producer.

Cry of the Werewolf

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: After our sojourn to Val Lewton's island, we're now back in familiar ground with Columbia's Cry of the Werewolf.  This is the third broadcast of the movie on Horror Incorporated, and it has been firmly relegated to second-feature status.  It's relatively low-octane stuff, with the shocks and special effects kept to a minimum. The same could be said, of course, for Isle of the Dead, but the creative decisions made in that film were  in service to the plot.  Here, they appear to be due to  a lack of both money and imagination.

Columbia had never shown much interest in the horror genre, aside from a string of standard-issue mad scientist pictures written for Boris Karloff in 1939 - 1940, when he was under contract with the studio. Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire came along a few years later, and was an obvious homage to the previous decade's Universal horror films.  It was the success of that film that paved the way for Cry of the Werewolf.

Unfortunately,  Cry of the Werewolf  lacks a few things that were present in Return of the Vampire.  We have neither a strong protagonist nor antagonist.  Instead of the Van Helsing-esque Lady Ainsley, who had been played with great verve by Frieda Inescort, our attention is split between Ona Masson as Elsa Chauvet and Stephen Crane as Bob Morris.  Masson, it should be said, is an engaging actress.  The trouble here is her character is almost entirely passive: her main function is to moon over the painfully dull Bob.  

As for an antagonist, there isn't a Bela Lugosi in sight. Instead we get Nina Foch, who did well enough as young Nicki Saunders in Return of the Vampire. But she is miscast here, pressed  into service as gypsy queen Marie LaTour.  She is a bit young for the part,  distinctly lacking in gravitas and never comes across as much of a threat, despite her ability to change into a wolf.  You'd think that would establish her badass bona fides, but somehow Foch seems like a rather perfunctory villain.