Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saturday, October 30, 1971 (Midnight): Chamber of Horrors aka Die Tur Mit Den 7 Schlossern (1962) / Doctor X (1932)

Synopsis: In London, a priest is poisoned while drinking a soda at a concession stand.  That same day, another man in the city is murdered, also under mysterious circumstances.  Each of the men carried an unusual looking key on a long gold chain. Later, police inspector Richard Martin (Heinz Drache) is visited by talkative safecracker Pheeny (Klaus Kinski) who tells him that someone tried to hire him to open a mysterious door with seven locks.  Pheeny, sensing that this is the sort of job that doesn't end with a paycheck but with a bullet in the back of the head, backs out of the deal and tells the whole story, asking for Martin's protection.  Pheeny, however, soon ends up dead.

Martin's only clue comes in the form of a piece of paper that bears a coat of arms.  He visits a library; the librarian frostily informs him that it might take months or years to track down a particular coat of arms.  However, when the woman sees it, she instantly knows to whose family the coat of arms belongs. By an astounding coincidence it is the coat of arms of the librarian's own family, the Selfords; and in fact the young woman, Sybil (Sabina Sesselmann), is herself one of the heirs of the Selford estate.  This turns out to be quite useful, as it soon becomes clear that each of the Selford heirs is being systematically targeted for murder.

It happens that the dispostion of the Selford estate is a hot topic at this particular moment.  The primary heir to the Selford fortune is soon to reach the age of majority, and all other heirs to the estate will receive their share of the fortune at the same time.  No one seems to have seen the heir lately, but the family's attorney Mr. Haveloc (Hans Nielsen) says that he is abroad and that he himself has had to send frequent letters of credit to cover the heir's gambling debts and hotel-trashing bills.

Martin, assisted by the comical police detective Holms, proceeds to the Selford mansion, where he must contend with the mysterious Dr. Antonio Stiletti (Pinkas Braun), a scientist in the Bela Lugosi vein, who keeps an ape in a cage down in the basement, and whose sinister experiments have yielded a monstrous assistant named Jacko, who is ready to kill at Dr. Selford's command....

Comments: For our first feature tonight we get a rare treat: a krimi film from the early 1960s.  Krimis were West German crime films produced by the Danish studio Rialto, and based on the novels of Edgar Wallace.  Rialto made an impressive number of these films through the 1960s. They tended to have the same actors pop up again and again (Klaus Kinski played low-life criminals in many of them, including this one) They are mostly forgotten now, though they do enjoy something of a cult following. They sport their own unique look and sensibility; and The Door With Seven Locks (released stateside as Chamber of Horrors) is a good introduction to this subgenre.

Krimi films are fast-paced and pleasant enough to watch, but you shouldn't spend a lot of time trying to make sense of them; it just spoils the fun (it might occur to you, for example, that a door with seven locks can be defeated by any punk with a set of lock picks; it would just take him seven times as long -- but never mind that).

 The novel's already overloaded plot is burdened with even more improbable twists and turns and red herrings. These films have an odd sense of humor, too --  as though you're watching The Usual Suspects as directed by Richard Lester. Inspector Martin is an engaging, light-hearted fellow who is constantly doing magic tricks.  His assistant, detective Holms, is always providing unnecessary information (one murder victim's name is Livingstone; Holms feels duty-bound to report that it isn't the famous African explorer).  And Dr. Stiletti is a Bela Lugosi-esque nut who is interested in building a race of supermen; his first attempt yields a Tor Johnson-esque brute who lumbers around, carrying out his sinister instructions. Stiletti's plan to place the head of a man on an ape's body speaks to the same eclectic portfolio of a Lugosi villain, as well.

There is an agreeable wackiness to the proceedings, and as a mystery-horror hybrid this ones works pretty well.  Chamber of Horrors is also, at nine years old, the "newest" film we've seen on the show thus far.

Doctor X

Synopsis: A vicious serial killer is on the loose in New York, a cannibal who only strikes when the Moon is full. The police realize that all of the murders are centered around the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill), and the cops recruit Dr. Xavier to help find which of the four eccentric surgeons in his employ might be the murderer.

As it turns out, all four of the doctors make pretty good suspects.  We have the sour Dr. Wells, who has studied the practices of cannibals; Dr Duke, whom we may or may not rule out because he is in a wheelchair but who is kind of a jerk anyway; Dr. Rowitz, a researcher of a more lyrical bent (he writes poetry); and Dr. Haines, who seems to be hiding a number of secrets, including a penchant for lad magazines.  Oh, and he might have taken a nibble or two of human flesh in his day.

Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Lee Taylor  (Lee Tracy) is trying to scoop the competition in getting the facts of the case, and he isn't above posing as a corpse in the city morgue to get access.  Along the way he falls for Dr. Xavier's daughter Joanne (Fay Wray).  But as Dr. Xavier hatches a plan to catch the man dubbed the "Moon Killer" by the papers, Lee also has to face the possibility that the killer may be none other than Dr. Xavier himself...

Comments: This Michael Curtiz thriller was shot not long after Universal hit box office gold with "Dracula" and "Frankenstein".  As popular as these two films were with the public, they were regarded with great suspicion by the various self-appointed guardians of public morals, which saw them both -- particularly the latter  -- as unnecessarily ghoulish (Hollywood would soon create its own guardian of public morals in the form of the Hayes Office). Perhaps because of this, Doctor X  is surprisingly light-hearted in tone, considering the subject matter; and the male lead is even more of a goofball than the reporter Wallace Ford played in Night of Terror.

Doctor X was one of a number of early sound-era films shot in two-strip Technicolor, which theoretically makes this the first color film to be shown on Horror Incorporated. However, I am dead certain that the print shown on Channel 5 the night of October 30, 1971 would have been black-and-white.  To my knowledge no color 16mm prints were ever struck for this feature; in fact, most of the 35mm prints made after the original release of Doctor X were in black-and-white.  Luckily, the current DVD version is taken from UCLA's restored archival print, so we can see what audiences in 1932 saw.

Color does wonders for this film. It brings life to the lavish art-deco sets and seems to deepen the overall depth of field. The two-strip process also lends an unusual, desaturated color palate to the film, with very strong greens and browns but the vibrant "hot"  colors we associate with the later Technicolor -- reds, oranges and yellows -- quite muted by comparison.

It's great to see Lionel Atwill working on a good film while his career was still on the upswing.  Doctor X was released about a year before Secret of the Blue Room, another of his good early roles. But he's better served in this film because his daughter is not played by the simpering Gloria Stuart, but the radiant Fay Wray, one of the greatest film talents of the early 1930s. It's unfortunate that Wray's career faded so quickly -- but she gives a luminous and memorable performance here.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Saturday (Noon), October 30, 1971: The Black Sleep (1956)

Synopsis: Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsey (Herbert Rusley) has been convicted of murder. On the eve of his hanging, he is visited by one of his old medical school professors, Sir Joel Cadman.  Ramsey swears to Cadman that he didn't commit the crime, and Cadman seems sympathetic. He gives Ramsey a vial of powder and instructs him to mix the powder with water and drink before dawn on the morning of his hanging.  This, Cadman promises, will put him in a such a state of torpor that he will not be aware of the hanging at all. He also assures Ramsey that his body won't be turned over to the medical college for dissection, as is normally done with convicts' bodies; instead, the body will be turned over to Dr. Cadman himself.

When the guards come for Ramsey the next morning they find his dead body lying in the cell.  The body is transferred to Dr. Cadman, who once back at his lab gives it an injection.  At once the body goes into convulsions; minutes later, Dr. Ramsey has come back to life.

This, Dr. Cadman tells an astonished Ramsey, is the work of an ancient drug known as the Black Sleep; it perfectly simulates death; and as long as the antidote is given within 24 hours, the patient can be revived. A grateful Ramsey agrees to assist Dr. Cadman with his brain research.

While at the Cadman estate, Ramsey witnesses young Laurie (Patricia Blair) being attacked by a wild-eyed patient, Mungo (Lon Chaney, Jr). Mungo seems deranged and is apparently carries a visceral hatred for Laurie.  Ramsey tells Cadman that Mungo reminds him of someone he once knew, Professor Monroe, who was one of his instructors in college.  Cadman tells him that Mungo is indeed Professor Monroe; moreover, Laurie is his daughter.

Dr. Ramsey assists in experimenting with the brain of a cadaver when he notices cerebral fluid running down the surface of the brain.  How can this happen on a cadaver? he asks Cadman.  It isn't a cadaver, Dr. Cadman replies.  The man they are experimenting on is alive, kept in a state of suspended animation by the Black Sleep.

When Dr Ramsey protests, Cadman tells him that this is the only way to conduct the research that will benefit all mankind.  He reminds him that Dr. Monroe will benefit when he is able to unlock the mysteries of the human brain; so will Dr. Cadman's wife, who has been in a trance-like state since a brain injury.

But little does Dr. Ramsey know that Cadman was the one who arranged for him to be tried and convicted of murder, in order to recruit him as an assistant in his ghoulish experiments....

Comments: The Black Sleep is often called a throwback to an earlier era of horror, for two reasons.  First, it is the sort of gothic mad scientist picture that was popular in the 1930s, but decidedly unfashonable when it premiered in 1956; and second, it boasts an impressive number of washed-up horror stars in its cast, giving the strong impression of an homage to the glory days of Universal horror.

Unfortunately, while the actor's names might have been useful in generating box office, the actors themselves don't fare well. Bela Lugosi walks through his mute servant role with a pained expression and a palpable sense of physical frailty; the good humor that he displayed in such unfortunate productions as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire has utterly evaporated here. He's reached the end of the line and seems to know it -- and in fact, this would prove to be the last time he worked on a movie set. (Plan 9 From Outer Space is technically his final screen credit, but that hardly counts -- Lugosi died after shooting less than a minute's worth of home-movie-quality footage).

Lon Chaney, Jr's drinking problem had more than caught up with him by this time and he looks sallow and unhealthy, no longer able to memorize dialogue and therefore appearing here - as he did in most of his late film roles -- as a rampaging brute. John Carradine, who always seemed quite comfortable in the most dismal settings, seems no less comfortable here; and Tor Johnson, the new kid on the block, upstages the old guys somewhat with his trademark blank-eyes-and-gaping-mouth performance.

While he wasn't a horror star per se, Basil Rathbone had played the title role in Universal's Son of Frankenstein nearly 20 years earlier.  He had moved on to bigger and better things in the meantime, and appearing in this film must have felt like a big step down for him.

But throwback that this is, The Black Sleep is also something of a missing link.  While aping Universal's golden age of horror, the  movie anticipates the Hammer cycle of horror films that defined the genre for the following decade.  The old Universal films almost entirely implied their ghoulishness and anything grotesque occured offscreen*.  In this film, we see a patient laid upon an operating table, a flap of skin folded back and his brain exposed, and we're treated to a close-up of cerebral fluid dribbling down the brain's convoluted surface. 

This icky detail must have been quite lurid for its time, and it is treated with the solemnity of acolytes wishing to impress the master.  Hammer, by contrast, used blood and gore with the barely-concealed glee of prankish schoolboys. The Black Sleep was made in a time when Universal's golden age was remembered fondly, even though its characteristic restraint was seen as a bit old-fashioned. By the time Hammer studios got into the business, Universal's horror films seemed much creakier, and movies like The Black Sleep, which wanted to be seen as  daring and innovative, were quickly forgotten.

* In fact, James P. Hogan's The Mad Ghoul we never see a single drop of blood -- even though it's a movie about a man turned into a zombie, who can only return to normal by digging up freshly-buried bodies and eating their hearts.