Saturday, August 24, 2013

Saturday, November 13, 1971 (Midnight): Svengali (1931) / The Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)

Synopsis: The eccentric musician Svengali (John Barrymore) ekes out a living as a music tutor in Paris. He lives a decidedly bohemian lifestyle: he rarely bathes, his clothes are worn and unkempt, and he owes money to just about everyone he knows.

Svengali is acquainted with a group of English expat artists who live nearby, and it is through them that he first sees the lovely young model  Trilby (Marian Marsh).  Like most men he is thoroughly taken with her, drawn to her beauty, innocence and playfulness, but she is in love with an Englishman named Billee (Bramwell Fletcher).

Among Svengali's talents is a knack for hypnotism, and he offers to help Trilby with her persistent headaches by putting her under his spell and eliminating the pain through the power of suggestion. Before long, the amoral mentalist decides that he can do more than this, and under his power Trilby sends a note to Billee rejecting him, and leading him to believe she has committed suicide.  But in fact she has fled Paris with Svengali, starting a new life not only as his musical protege but as his bride.

Under Svengali's tutelage, Trilby becomes a famous singer, performing across Europe as Mdme. Svengali.  Svengali himself becomes wealthy and powerful, with the most important figures in the music world begging for a moment of his time.  Yet Svengali is not happy.  In spite of his control over Trilby, he knows that she doesn't really love him.

Soon enough, Svengali makes a triumphant return to Paris. Billee is astonished to see that Trillby is not only alive, but is Svengali's wife.  When Trilby sees Billee, she is momentarily ecstatic to see him, and Svengali must struggle to bring her back under his control....

Comments: In spite of its theme of hypnotic control, Svengali isn't so much a horror film as it is a romantic tragedy. Billee is made to believe the woman he loves has killed herself, thanks to the work of an unprincipled cad, and we sympathize with him. Trilby is victim to a much crueler form of manipulation, and she evokes our pity as well. But curiously, the one we really wind up feeling sorry for is Svengali himself.   He is a monster in his way, but like King Kong or the Creature From the Black Lagoon he is a tragic one.  He only wants the love of one woman, and he seems to know he is fated never to have it.

Like all fools for love, he keeps on trying even when he knows how things are going to end. His method of controlling Trilby may be exotic, but it's not so different than those used by jealous lovers down through the ages: separate her from friends and family, keep her close at hand, and force her to regard him as the center of her universe.

What's tragic about the character of Svengali is that for all his power, he can't control the one thing he wants. Everything he does in the movie -- making her a famous singer, touring Europe with her in tow, becoming rich and famous and respected -- was all in hopes of winning her love. 

John Barrymore's performance does a lot to sell the character as a human being rather than merely a villain (a stereotypically Jewish one, it should be noted).  It's a hammy performance, of course (Barrymore was a ham of the first magnitude) but he is able to add touches of humor and tragedy to the role that make the character memorable. This was a high note in a film career that had enjoyed many high notes, but it also meant Barrymore had a long way to fall. By 1940 the studios would be trading on his famous name while casting him in increasingly meager and humiliating parts. It can't be said that his talent was being wasted, though, since his long years of heavy drinking had rendered him incapable of memorizing dialogue anyway.

The beautiful Marian Marsh, still a teenager when she starred in this film, is the perfect Trilby.  She so perfectly conveys Trilby's innocence and playfulness that it's easy to imagine anyone -- even the creepy Svengali -- falling head over heels for her.  She effortlessly conveys both the woman who loves Billee and the one who stares at him coldly when Svengali works his hypnotic hoodoo on her.

Devil Bat's Daughter (1946)

Synopsis: A young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) is found lying facedown on the highway late at night, and a passing good Samaritan stops and takes her to the Sheriff's office.  She is conscious but in a catatonic state. A local cabbie identifies her as the fare he picked up earlier that evening.  She'd wanted to go to the "old Carruthers place".  When the cabbie told her the place has  been deserted for years, she reacted with a shocked expression.  Nevertheless it is at the Carruthers place that the cabbie leaves her.

Surmising that the woman's missing bag must still be at the house, the county Sheriff (Ed Cassidy) and local physician Dr. Eliot (Nolan Leary) go there in hopes of finding a clue to the woman's identity.  In the woman's bag they discover papers that identify her as Nina MacCarron, the daughter of the late mad scientist Paul Carruthers, who had terrorized many people with his giant mutated bats some years earlier.

Believing that Nina is suffering from some sort of psychological shock, Dr. Eliot places Nina under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Clifton Morris (Michael Hale). Over a number of weeks, Dr. Morris helps Nina reconstruct her broken memory: she had been living in England for most of her life. Dr. Carruthers had left her family when Nina was only four years old.  Traumatized by the recent death of her mother and by the stress of the London blitz, she travels to America to find her father, only to find that he had died under the accusation of terrible crimes.

During this intensive therapy Nina stays at the Morris household, and we get a view of the respected psychiatrist's home. There is growing friction between Morris and his wife, the wealthy Ellen Masters Morris. Ellen has a weak heart, and a son from a previous marriage, who is expected home soon from the war.  For his part, Morris is keeping a mistress on the side named Myra (Monica Mars), who wants a commitment.  Even though Morris explains that he would lose out financially if he divorced Ellen, Myra won't relent.  Don't call me, Myra warns Morris, until you're ready to get Ellen out of your life.

Soon Ted Masters arrives home from the war; he and Nina quickly fall in love.  But Nina is troubled by strange dreams -- of giant bats that are trying to control her. One night Nina awakens from one such dream to discover that she has killed the Morris family dog with a pair of scissors. Dr. Morris suggests she be moved to a sanitarium for the family's safety, but the kind-hearted Ellen disagrees, and Nina stays.
But a few nights later, after another disturbing dream, Nina awakens to find herself standing in the hallway holding a pair of bloody scissors.  And nearby lies the body of Ellen Masters Morris....

 Comments: This meager PRC offering was ostensibly a sequel to the 1940 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. That film was an archetypal Lugosi mad scientist picture, featuring a method of execution that has a zany greatness about it: the victim receives the gift of a special shaving lotion; when applied to the neck, the lotion attracts giant mutated bats that -- quite literally -- go for the jugular.

The Devil Bat was silly and lurid, but it made money, so it was only natural for PRC to greenlight a sequel.  But it turned out to be a sequel in name only. What they really did was to make a low-budget knockoff of two popular films of the era, Cat People (1942) and Gaslight (1944). From Cat People comes the family curse and the conniving psychiatrist; from Gaslight comes the device of a powerful man convincing a vulnerable young woman that she's going mad.

As we previously noted, Cat People and Gaslight also clearly inspired She Wolf of London, a Universal thriller also released in 1946 -- and a movie with a very similar plot to this one.

 So was Devil Bat's Daughter a rip-off of She-Wolf of London, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?   Or was She-Wolf of London a rip-off of Devil Bat's daughter, which was a rip-off of Cat People and Gaslight?

Well, we don't know.  Devil Bat's Daughter and She-Wolf of London were released within a month of each other.  It's possible that one was influenced by the other, perhaps by news that appeared in the trades.  On the other hand, they both might independent rip-offs of other movies.

Oddly enough, the screenwriters felt it necessary to rehabilitate Dr. Carruthers' reputation at the end of this movie.  We're told in the final minutes that Carruthers was actually a wonderful man whose important experiments with giant bats were misunderstood by a fearful and superstitious public.  This seems extremely unlikely, since we all remember Lugosi chuckling with glee as he sent his devil bats off to rip innocent people's throats out in the first movie.  Audiences had no doubt forgotten some of the plot points from The Devil Bat by the time the sequel arrived.   But the presence of a  homicidal bat-obsessed maniac probably wasn't one of them.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Saturday, November 13, 1971 (Noon): Gog (1954)

Synopsis: In a top-secret laboratory complex, researchers are working to make practical the age-old dream of manned spaceflight.  In one experiment, a monkey is given an injection and then placed in a cold chamber.  The temperature drops to over 100 degrees below zero; the monkey is quickly frozen solid but when it is thawed out it's as good as new. In a similar manner, we are told, astronauts will one day hibernate during long space journeys.

Later Dr. Huburtus (Michael Fox) is working inside the chamber alone when the door slams shut behind him.  The controls begin to turn on by themselves, plunging the temperature inside the chamber to -100 degrees.  Huburtus freezes to death, as does his assistant (Marian Richman)  when she tries to go inside the chamber to rescue him.

The two mysterious deaths cause station director Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) to call in the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), a sort of brainy FBI.  Soon Dr. David Sheppard (Richard Egan) arrives at the facility, which is located in the desert southwest. Sheppard is brought in via helicopter, as the base is inaccessible by road.  As the helicopter approaches the base, the controls begin to move by themselves,  and the pilot lets go of them. He explains to Sheppard that the last part of the voyage is controlled by the installation's computer, NOVAC.  This, he says, is in order to keep the exact location of the base a secret.

Dr. Sheppard is introduced to Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling), who is tasked with giving Sheppard a tour of the facility.  However, we soon find that Joanna and Sheppard have been lovers, a fact they keep hidden from the rest of the personnel at the base.

Sheppard is shown the various experiments going on in the lab.  We see a chamber where gravity can be artificially reduced, and a man and a woman do acrobatic feats in a near-weightless environment.  In another part of the facility, a centrifuge whirls prospective astronauts around at dangerous speeds.

Dr. Van Ness shows Sheppard a scale model of a planned orbital satellite.  America, Van Ness says, must be the first to launch such a satellite.  If the enemy gets into space first, it could be the end of the United States.  To prove this dubious claim, he shows Sheppard a parabolic mirror that will be mounted on the satellite.  The mirror is designed to focus sunlight into a mercury-filled chamber, creating steam and powering the space station.  However, he warns, such a mirror could be used for more sinister purposes.  He uses the same kind of focusing mirror to direct sunlight on a scale model of a "an industrial city on the shores of Lake Erie".  The model city bursts into flames as soon as the focused sunlight touches it.

Later, Sheppard meets Dr. Zeitman, a suspicous German expatriate who designed NOVAC and spent five years assembling it in Switzerland. Zeitman is clearly a genius, and he demonstrates two innovations he believes are even greater than NOVAC itself: the robot Gog, and its twin Magog....

Comments:  Gog was the third and last of Ivan Tors' series of films about a near-future government body, the "Office of Scientific Investigation", that solves mysteries of a scientific nature. The first of these, The Magnetic Monster (1953) , is a clever little film in which a misguided scientist exposes a chunk of "serrenium" to some exotic radiation. The element becomes strongly magnetic and starts growing exponentially. The scientists discover that jolts of electricity stop the element's growth, but only temporarily; and each time an exponentially larger charge of electricity is needed. The OSI must find a way to destroy it before it destroys the world. The Magnetic Monster is mostly remembered today for its clever use of cyclotron footage from an expensive German film called Gold (1934). While a bit corny and melodramatic, The Magnetic Monster was still a  lively and well-paced movie.

The same cannot be said for the second OSI film, Riders To the Stars,  the first of the series to be shot in color.  In this film, rockets launched beyond Earth's atmosphere rapidly disintegrate, due to the bombardment of cosmic rays. The OSI scientists must find a way to get rockets safely into space before the Soviets do, because (as in Gog) the first nation to reach orbit will dominate the world. Knowing that meteors fly through space without disintegrating, the scientists hatch a plan to launch three men in separate rockets to try to catch a small meteor sample and return it to Earth, in hopes of finding alloys that can survive the dangerous conditions of outer space.

The problems with Riders to the Stars are numerous, and expose Tors' weaknesses as a storyteller.  The script is talky, Richard Carlson's direction is leaden, and plot holes abound. It doesn't make sense, for instance, that the meteors must be retrieved from space, since meteors routinely fall to earth. The men chosen for the mission are required to be single, for no adequately explained reason. And none of the recruits are called upon to use any of the science and engineering backgrounds that were deemed so important to their selection in the first place.   In the end, they're chosen to fly the rockets based on physical endurance, steely nerves and raw courage, which makes you wonder why they didn't just recruit test pilots to begin with.

Gog was the only one of the three to be shot in 3D (though for some reason it wasn't released in that format) and apparently the only one to be shot in widescreen.  Only one partially intact 3D print has been discovered, and there don't appear to be any widescreen prints extant at all.

I wouldn't call Gog a good movie, but it's interesting.  The production values are surprisingly robust for an indie production, somewhat reminiscent of Jack Harris' work with Valley Forge Studios in the late 50's and early 60's.  And whether intended at the time or not, the whole concept of the underground  lab and the work it's engaged in provides an aura of menace and paranoia. 

Early in the film we learn that the base is so super-secret that it was built underground, an no trace of it can be seen from above.  The helicopter that brings Sheppard to the lab flies that last part of the route on autopilot, to prevent anyone from knowing its exact location -- even the people who work there.  But this seems like an absurd level of security. After all, the Soviets didn't seem to have any trouble finding it.

While not every plot point makes sense, some of the ideas expressed in the film are surprisingly prescient.  Gog and Magog (and in fact all the electronic controls on the base) are operated through the mainframe computer NOVAC via its centralized transmitter. The Soviets* gain access to base controls by means of a secret transceiver that was placed inside the mainframe during the unit's assembly in Switzerland. 

So in modern parlance, the Soviets manage to hack into the computer and its wireless network, allowing them to monitor all actions taken by NOVAC and to take control of it -- like a modern remote desktop -- when it suits them. These ideas expressed in a rather clumsy fashion throughout the movie, but the fact that they're expressed at all is actually pretty impressive for a movie made in 1954.  I don't think Gog has ever gotten credit for this, but perhaps it ought to.

The screenwriters assume that the hack into  NOVAC must be via  direct line-of-sight transmission -- more like a microwave link than a conventional radio transmission.  In order to establish the line of sight to NOVAC,  the Soviets build a high-altitude aircraft which, because it has a fiberglass hull, is undetectable by radar; what we would describe today as a stealth aircraft.

As the title suggests, it's Gog and Magog who are the real stars, and they are pretty convincing robots for this era. Rather than a mechanical man that stumps around on two legs, these robots run on tractor treads and carry a nasty collection of pincers and flamethrowers.  They don't get a great deal to do, but they sure do look imposing.  Left unsaid is why these robots are equipped with heavy weapons in the first place; nor do we ever find out why they are named after the biblical minions of Satan.  Kind of an unfortunate choice on the part of the good guys -- unless we are supposed to walk away wondering if we really are the good guys. Given that this is 1954, though, I'm guessing that wasn't the filmmakers' intent.

Gog runs a brisk 85 minutes but its pace is painfully slow, and like all of Ivan Tors' OSI movies there are a lot of long scenes of someone explaining the workings of this or that scientific apparatus.  The action scenes are jealously measured out, with Sheppard's big fight with the robots saved for the climax. Even that scene is pretty tame by today's standards.  But that's okay. Ivan Tors was never known for staging action sequences -- as he would prove the following year when he produced the dull-as-dishwater Science Fiction Theater.

*In a peculiar -- but quite durable -- convention in Cold War films, the Soviets are never referenced directly. They are always referred to obliquely  as "the Other Side", etc.  Early in the film Dr. Van Ness tells Sheppard that the base is being sabotaged by "an enemy power".  "But we're not at war," Sheppard replies.  "We weren't at war the night before Pearl Harbor either," Van Ness says darkly, evincing a level of paranoia that makes me wonder how we survived that era at all.