Thursday, January 31, 2013

Saturday (Noon), October 23, 1971: Return of the Ape Man (1944) / The Face Behind the Mask (1941)

Synopsis: Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are conducting an experiment in suspended animation.  They bring a drunken vagrant (Ernie Adams) back to their laboratory, inject him with a serum, then freeze him solid for four months.  When they thaw him out, he's as good as new.  He happily takes the five-dollar bill Professor Gilmore gives him, unaware that any time has passed at all.

Professor Gilmore states that this is a triumph for Dexter's theories.  A man in this state of preservation, he says, could survive for a thousand years.  But Dexter is more circumspect.  There is only one way to prove that a man frozen for thousands of years could be revived, he says.  And that's to find someone who's been frozen for thousands of years and revive him!

Nine months later the two scientists are in the arctic, searching fruitlessly for a human body that's been preserved in a glacier.  Gilmore urges Dexter to give up: they've been searching without success for nearly a year.  Gilmore adds that he is a married man, and that his family needs him. Dexter mocks Gilmore's lack of resolve.

At that moment, the men see the outer edge of a glacier shear off from the rest.  They find the body of a man frozen in the ice, and they carve out the block and bring it back to their laboratory.

Using the techniques they've developed, the two scientists thaw out the caveman and restore it to life.  This, Gilmore says, is truly an amazing achievement!  Not yet, Dexter replies.  It will not be a truly amazing achievement until they are able to fully control the caveman.  And the only way to fully control the caveman is to take part of the brain of a modern man and add it to the caveman's brain!

Gilmore scoffs, noting that it would be impossible to find a volunteer for such an experiment.  But Dexter seems unconcerned by this.  Later, at a homecoming celebration for the two scientists, Gilmore notices that his brainy brother Steve isn't around.  Steve, we learn, has left with Dexter.  Gilmore rushes to Dexter's lab, afraid of what he will find....

Comments: Oh lord. We've seen a few clunkers on Horror Incorporated since its premiere in November 1969.  But this feature -- the very first of Horror Incorporated's matinee shows -- is the first movie we've seen that actually made me angry.  Each of Return of the Ape Man's idiotic plot points aggravated me as though it was a personal insult, until by the end I was pacing around my living room, furious at everyone involved in the production. But my most profound rage was reserved for screenwriter Robert Charles.  I wanted to drive to L.A. and punch him in the face. But he's dead, or at least I have to assume he is (his IMDB entry lists no year of birth or death, and exactly two credits: this film and Voodoo Man, which also came out in 1944.  Presumably all the good screenwriters had been drafted -- but I digress.)

This isn't an auspicious beginning for the noontime edition of Horror Incorporated. As a calling card it's more of an insult than anything else. Return of the Ape Man is a perfect example of everything that's wrong with Monogram's output: the grimy-looking sets, the excessive use of stock footage, the weak-as-water dialogue.

But what really outs this movie as a Monogram production is its air of complete indifference. No one involved with the production seems to have exerted a moment's effort more than was necessary to pick up a paycheck.  That goes for the lead actors as well; and it is somewhat surprising in the case of that old pro  Lugosi, who always seemed to give his all no matter how big the turkey he was asked to play in.

But to be fair, no amount of effort could have salvaged this train wreck.  From stem to stern, the screenplay is dreadful.  The absurdities start right out of the gate and never really stop coming.  The very first shot in the movie is a blaring newspaper headline, "NOTED TRAMP MISSING". The "noted tramp" is, of course, the same vagrant that Dexter and Gilmore have abducted in order to use in their experiments.  We're asked to believe that the two scientists picked up the homeless man and experimented on him, presumably because he wouldn't be missed. But the JAPS-BOMB-PEARL-HARBOR- sized headline indicates that the vagrant was, improbably enough, missed after all.  Yet after the four-month experiment, Gilmore gives the man a five-dollar bill and the noted tramp goes his merry way.  There's no indication that the man's reappearance triggers any questions or spurs any investigation that would lead back to Dexter and Gilroy.

In fact, the ethics of using a homeless alcoholic as a guinea pig (or a caveman as a guinea pig, for that matter) is never even brought up; we are apparently supposed to think there's nothing wrong with it.  Gilmore is presented to us as the scientist with a conscience, reacting in horror when Dexter proposes taking part of a modern humans' brain and implanting it in the caveman. But Gilmore's horror seems to be caused more by the prospect of Dexter harvesting his brother Steve's brain than it is the immorality of Dexter's plans.

Oh, and while we're on the subject, what exactly are Dexter's plans?  Even a mad scientist has to have some goal in mind.  As a scientist, Dexter seems to be quite a dabbler: he first perfects suspended animation, then goes on an expedition to find someone frozen in an ancient glacier, then suddenly he's talking about brain transplants.  What is Dexter's area of expertise, anyway?  Is he a cryogenicist?  An anthropologist? A neurologist? Where does his funding come from?  In what journals, if any, does he publish?

I know, we're not supposed to ask these sorts of questions. But mad scientists are consistent if nothing else. Even Dr. Niemann, crazy as a bedbug, had sense enough to be a specialist.

This opus enjoys a 4.6 rating on IMDB, which is baffling to me.  I can only chalk it up to people who can't tell good movies from bad ones, or those who think of themselves as connoisseurs of rotten movies, the way some people are connoisseurs of rotten cheese.

This movie doesn't deserve to be lauded, or even watched ironically.  I suspect it isn't a movie at all, but a fraudulent imitation of one.  If the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulated movies, they would have taken this one off the market a long time ago.  It's a cheat from start to finish.

By the way, here are two more cheats in the film.  The title Return of the Ape Man is meant to mislead audiences.  It is not a sequel to Monogram's previous Bela Lugosi outing The Ape Man.  Moreover, the Ape Man, who does not return from anywhere, is not played by George Zucco

The Face Behind the Mask

Synopsis: Immigrant Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre) is fresh off the boat from Hungary. He's a nice guy, and on his first day in America he befriends a police detective named Jim O'Hara (Don Beddoe). O'Hara recommends a cold-water flat nearby that he can stay at. Before the day is out, he lands a job as a dishwasher, and he is sure that before long he will be able to find work as a watchmaker. Janos is thrilled at all America has to offer, but that night tragedy strikes: his apartment building catches fire and his face is hideously disfigured.
Even though he is a skilled watchmaker and machinist, Janos now finds he can't get a job anywhere because of his grotesque appearance. Soon he falls in with a friendly thief named Dinky (George E. Stone). Janos is reluctant to pursue a life of crime, but when Dinky becomes ill, Janos takes a safecracking job in his stead.

It turns out that Janos excels at crime, and when he discovers that he can get a detailed rubber mask made of his old face, he is determined to get the money it takes to have it made. When the mask is completed it gives Janos a waxy, heavy-lidded appearance, but women no longer scream when they see him. Soon Janos is the leader of Dinky's gang, but when he becomes involved with Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), a beautiful and good-hearted blind woman, he is determined to quit the gang and lead an honest life. The only problem is, his new friends would rather see him dead than let him go....

Comments: This rags-to-riches crime melodrama only qualifies as horror because its luckless protagonist has been disfigured in a fire, and must wear a mask to conceal his hideous mug. Director Robert Florey might have given Peter Lorre an actual mask to wear, like the one sported by Jack Huston's maimed war vet in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. Instead, he decided to simply have Lorre hold his (heavily made-up) face rigid in order to simulate a life-like rubber mask. This may seem a questionable idea, and as a special effect it isn't all that convincing. But it hardly matters because the mask is really just a metaphor.

 Like a lot of masks in the movies, this one points to a false inner life. Janos Szoba finds he is really good at being an underworld kingpin, but his heart isn't in it.  No matter what he pretends to be on the outside, he will never stop being a goofy Hungarian watchmaker, with a hopeless crush on the American Dream. This isn't completely obvious at first, and it isn't until he meets the sweet and conveniently blind Helen  that he decides he wants to chuck the life of crime that he'd only taken up out of dire necessity.

It all has the potential to become arty and pretentious but never does, thanks to Florey's direction,  some deft screenwriting and a winning performance by Peter Lorre.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Saturday, October 16, 1971: Kronos (1957) / The Black Room (1935)

Synopsis:  Late one night in the California desert, a man drives his pickup truck along a lonely stretch of highway.  Suddenly, his radio is filled with static and his truck stalls.  He gets out and lifts the hood, then notices a strange white sphere racing toward him. When the sphere hits him it vanishes, and he calmly lowers the hood of his vehicle, gets into the truck, and heads back the way he came.

Soon the driver arrives at a scientific research facility called LabCentral.  There he knocks out the security guard and barges into the office of the lab's director, Dr. Hubbell Elliot (John Emery). In an instant, the white sphere transfers from the truck driver to Dr. Elliot.  The driver collapses, dead; now Dr. Elliot seems not to be himself.  He immediately goes to a locked cabinet and peruses a file that lists the locations and yields of all the world's atomic power plants.

Elsewhere in the building, three other LabCentral employees are working late: Dr. Leslie Gaskell (Jeff Morrow) is tracking the path of an asteroid, with the help of his beautiful assistant / #1 squeeze Vera Hunter (Barbara Lawrence); Dr. Arnold Culver (George O'Hanlon) is using a mammoth computer nicknamed "Susie" to compute the asteroid's orbit.  But something hinkey is going on: Gaskell is certain the asteroid's course is changing for no apparent reason.  And before long Susie bears this out: the asteroid is now heading directly for Earth.

When told of this, Dr. Elliot shrugs, suggesting that Susie might have made a mistake; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  Gaskell finds Elliot's attitude perplexing.  He implores Elliot to contact the government immediately -- missiles loaded with nuclear warheads must be fired at the asteroid while it's still in space.  If the object isn't destroyed, Gaskell says, its impact could cause enormous damage.

Reluctantly, Elliot agrees.  Soon a trio of missiles are launched at the asteroid.  All three strike their target.  At the same moment Dr. Elliot collapses to the floor, unconscious.  But to Gaskell's astonishment, the asteroid is left completely intact and its course is unchanged.  The object splashes into the sea,  a few miles off the west coast of Mexico.  On a hunch, Gaskell and Culver travel to Mexico to see if they can determine the asteroid's makeup.  Gaskell is surprised but eventually delighted when Vera shows up as well.

Back in the States, Dr. Elliot, moving in and out of a trance-like state, is being treated by a psychiatrist.  In his lucid moments, he tells the shrink that an alien intelligence has gained control of him, and is forcing him to betray the human race.  The alien race is trying to absorb all the Earth's energy, and will succeed if given time. 

The following morning, the scientists in Mexico awake to discover that in the same place in the ocean where the object landed, a 300-foot robot now stands....

 Comments: While it certainly isn't the best science fiction movie of the 1950s, Kronos has a lot going for it. The word "underrated" is almost always applied to it, perhaps because it's somewhat smarter than many of its contemporaries and because it has remained fairly elusive over the years. In fact, a lot of people who know their 50s sci-fi films backwards and forwards have never seen it.

Structurally Kronos resembles Japanese science fiction of the era  -- it's shot in widescreen; the heroes are scientists rather than military men; the threat is a giant robot, not an alien armada; and destruction is on an epic scale.

But in other respects it stands as an almost generic example of midcentury American science fiction: it's shot in black and white, there is a standard-issue alien possession subplot, the hero has a curvaceous assistant who doubles as his girlfriend; and the method used to finally cripple the energy-hungry Kronos is a fairly predictable let's-reverse-the-polarity-and-overload-its-circuits gimmick.

The movie was directed by Kurt Neumann, who famously beat George Pal's Destination Moon to theaters in 1950 with his own low-budget imitator, which had been announced to the trades as Expedition Moon.  Under threat of a lawsuit, Neumann changed the title to Rocketship X-M (the "X-M", however,  standing for "eXpedition Moon") and changed the rocket's final destination ( it was supposed to land on the Moon, we're told, but through a wacky mishap ended up on Mars instead).


Rocketship X-M is better remembered today than Kronos, perhaps because of its tenuous association with Destination Moon, and because it starred a young Lloyd Bridges.  But Kronos is unquestionably the better movie.  It builds an air of suspense and mystery with admirable speed, and while the characters sling around a lot of technobabble, it's there to establish verisimilitude, and it doesn't get in the way.  The audience can pretty easily follow what's happening.

The concept of LabCentral is interesting, even if it is a little hard to swallow: it seems to be a robustly-funded R&D lab without any particular portfolio or specialty.  It has an observatory that tracks asteroids, a supercomputer that appears to be up for any task, and the facility squirrels away all manner of classified information.  We don't know much about LabCentral -- whether it is privately-funded or government-run, or some combination of the two. 

Some of the plot elements suggest that Kronos takes place in the near future; for instance, Gaskell impatiently tells Elliot to call the government and order a missile strike against the incoming asteroid, as though everyone knows this is standard procedure. In fact, no rocket was capable of leaving the Earth's atmosphere when Kronos was made, let alone one bearing a nuclear warhead (the rockets we see being launched at the asteroid are German V-2s, the only rockets at the time for which stock footage was available).

Neumann has a talented cast to work with here.  John Emery, one of the better players in Rocketship X-M, is memorable as the doomed Dr. Elliot. As is typical with movies of the time, Barbara Lawrence's Vera doesn't get a lot to do, but she is in many ways the character who is meant to connect most directly to the audience, always trying to get the stuffy scientists to ground themselves in the real world. This is one of Jeff Morrow's better performances -- he plays the absent-minded but determined Dr. Gaskell with a nice touch of humor.    George O'Hanlon (best known as the voice of George Jetson) also provides some humor, though his anthropomorphizing of the computer mainframe ("Susie, speak to me!") gets a bit tiresome after a while.  We also have Morris Ankrum on hand, always a welcome presence.  For once, he doesn't play a general, but a psychiatrist who believes - mistakenly - that his patient's nutty story is a delusion.

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, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. "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: Kronos made its first appearance on Horror Incorporated 14 years after its theatrical release, the newest movie to date on Horror Incorporated; and you may have already guessed that we're moving into a new phase, where the science fiction films of the 1950s are starting to supplant the old Shock! package standards.  The Shock! pictures won't ever go away completely, of course, but the less famous titles will start to slip to second-feature status.

So back to the boneyard we go, with the 1935 Karloff opus The Black Room.  This one stands up well to repeat viewing, which is fortunate --  because by my count only Dracula has been broadcast more frequently.  I talked about the movie previously here and here; I don't have a lot to add, except that it stands up somewhat better as a thriller than as a horror film.  Gregor's depravities aren't dwelt upon, and most of his cruel deeds happen off screen.  By today's standards horror was a relatively tame genre in the 1930s, but even so, there seems to be an effort to keep things from getting too ghoulish.  Gregor's evil nature is largely an ascribed attribute.  We never see him do away with poor Mashka, for example.  Instead, Anton finds her body in the pit, along with a lot of other bodies; the only one we really see bumped off is Anton himself.

All the same Karloff is deliciously evil as the bad twin, and we can't wait for his comeuppance, which arrives right on schedule, and occurs in the most satisfying way.  Having Karloff play twin brothers is almost a hindrance in this movie -- we focus on the brothers' different characters and forget that Gregor is the only really interesting one.  And Karloff plays him to perfection.

Here's a quick programming note: next week marks the premiere of Horror Incorporated's noontime show, which was broadcast as a supplement to the midnight program.