Saturday, September 28, 2013

Interlude: All-Star Video

You may have noticed the presence of All-Star Video in the blogroll. In case you haven't checked it out, All-Star Video is a site run by John Moret, who like me is a volunteer at the Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis.  John writes about movies with the manic enthusiasm of a motorcycle stunt driver, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure horror titles from the 70s and 80s (I believe my first extended conversation with him was about the horror opus Devil Times Five.)  He also has a podcast that stands in part as a kind of oral history project, talking to people who do interesting film-related stuff: not just  filmmakers, but exhibitors, programmers and writers. 

John's too young to remember Horror Incorporated, but he's a faithful reader of the blog.  Recently he asked me to sit down with him and record an interview about the Horror Incorporated Project, TV in the 1970s,  the future of curated content, how to get fired from your job in a home video store, and some other crazy stuff.  It was really a kick for me to do it, especially since he's  previously interviewed some very interesting people, such as the Heights Theater's Tom Letness, Trash Film Debauchery's founder Theresa Kay and the Trylon's shihan Barry Kryshka.  You can hear the interview at the All-Star Video site.

John's also a film exhibitor, and he has an inspired event coming up on Wednesday, October 2: the Spanish-language Dracula will be shown at (and as a benefit for)  the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery in Minneapolis (the one at the corner of Lake and Cedar).  Tickets are $5 and you can find out more here.

John's screening will also kick off Take-Up Production's Universal Horror series in October, which features a number of titles I've written about on this site.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Saturday, November 27, 1971 (Midnight): The Beast With 5 Fingers (1946) / The Return of Doctor X (1939)

Synopsis: Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) is an American living in a small Italian village.  He makes a living partly by fleecing American tourists with "antique" stones, and partly by ingratiating himself to Francis Ingraham, a wealthy musician who owns a mansion in the village.

Ingraham is in poor health, confined to a wheelchair, and he only has the use of one hand.  As a concert pianist this is immensely frustrating for him.  But Conrad, himself a musician, has composed for him a number of pieces that can be played with one hand, something which gives Ingraham some measure of comfort.

One evening Ingraham asks his nurse Julie, his long-time secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), his attorney Dupreix and Conrad to join him over dinner.  He asks each of them if they consider him to be of sound mind, and they all agree that he is. He then asks them to sign a document naming them witnesses to a new will that he has written.

It is clear that Ingraham is in love with Julie.  So is Conrad; and he tries to convince Julie to come away with him, even though he knows that he has no money and no prospects. Ingraham, he admits ruefully, is the meal ticket for all those around him.  Conrad lives off his largesse; Julie is on his payroll, as is Hilary; and there's no doubt that Dupreix depends on Ingraham for much of his business.

But Hilary has overheard Conrad's conversation with Julie, and he immediately goes and tells Ingraham about it.  Ingraham, thinking that Hilary is trying to turn him against Julie, seizes Hilary's throat, choking him.  Hilary manages to escape, but is left with ugly marks on his neck.  Ingraham tells him to get out of the house.

Late that night there is a tremendous thunderstorm, and Ingraham, calling in vain for Julie, brings his chair too close to the top of the stairs.  The wheelchair tips and Ingraham takes a fatal fall down the long staircase.

The discovery of the body is a great shock to the community, and soon Ingraham's only living relatives show up --  Mr. Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son Donald (John Alvin). The two immediately start taking an inventory of the house's contents, clearly with the idea of liquidating them. This angers Hilary, who claims all the books in the library belong to him, that they were gifts from Ingraham.

But when the will is read everyone is shocked to discover that Julie has been named as the sole heir.  The Arlingtons are furious, and vow to contest the will.  Dupreix secretly meets with the Arlingtons and agrees to support their claim in exchange for a cut of the estate.

But weird things start to happen. There's a light coming from the crypt where Ingraham is buried.  Dupreix opens his door to discover a hand -- bearing Ingraham's ring -- reaching for his throat; he is later found strangled. The piano downstairs is heard to play one of Ingraham's one-handed compositions, but when people go to investigate no one is there.  Later, Hilary swears he saw Ingraham's disembodied hand moving of its own accord.  Arlington is nearly strangled by a hand that seemed to come from nowhere.  And when  police commisario Castanio leads the others to the crypt they discover that Ingraham's hand has been cut off from his body, and a window in the crypt has been smashed -- a window just large enough to allow a human hand to escape....

Comments: We have an unusual double bill tonight: back to back horror films from Warner Brothers.  Warner ventured into the horror genre only rarely, so the odds of getting two in a row are pretty unlikely.  There's no way to tell if it's by accident or design.  Either way, it's a nice change of pace.

First up is The Beast With 5 Fingers, a Curt Siodmak-penned thriller about a crawling hand on the loose in a spooky mansion.  The central mystery of the film -- whether the crawling hand is real or a delusion -- doesn't detract from the general aura of creepiness, and it should come as no surprise that this film was directed by Robert Florey, whose movies were always atmospheric, if nothing else.

The movie takes its time getting started, but that's not a bad thing. This isn't a typical smash-and-grab programmer, as time and care are taken in establishing each of the characters.  And each character, we learn, has his or her faults, even our protagonist  -- something else you don't often see in genre films. Bruce Conrad is affable, charming, and intelligent, yet he seems keenly aware of his own weaknesses and failures.  He has wound up in this quaint Italian village due to his own mistakes, but seems to have no idea how to get out.  He loves Julie and wants to start some kind of life with her, somewhere (or so he claims)  but seems paralyzed.  He is just as adrift without Ingraham's patronage as he was with it.

It is amusing that Julie, who had confessed previously that she wanted nothing more than to get away from Ingraham's gloomy mansion, is determined to stay once the will is read.  Bruce acts shocked, as though this is some sort of betrayal, and in a sense it is.  In death Ingraham has a power over her he never had in life. After all the 10-lire-per-game chess matches Bruce conned Ingraham into playing, he seems surprised to have been checkmated so easily himself.

Peter Lorre gives his standard manic, bulgy-eyed performance, in a role that had originally been offered to Paul Heinreid. I wouldn't say that Lorre is particularly good in this movie, but he could certainly make a convincing hysteric.

One of my favorite Universal contract players, J. Carrol Naish, portrays police comissario Castanio with a great deal of verve, even though the character is a thinly-written ethnic type.  Naish always managed to inject a bit more good humor and warmth in such roles than what could be found on the page, and he's delightful to watch here.

Max Steiner composed the eerie score, and he really outdid himself: this is terrific film music.  The one-handed piano compositions, it should be noted, were by Brahms.  Steiner chose them specifically for their slightly unnerving feel, and they are perfectly appropriate for this film.

The Beast With 5 Fingers comes from a time when horror films were tilting toward explained-away endings, and from a studio that was keenly embarrassed by genre material.  So it's not surprising that this horror effort hedged its bets to the extent that it did.  Nevertheless, it's a smart and entertaining attempt to make a serious and literate horror film.

The Return of Doctor X

Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Walter "Wichita" Garrett (Wayne Morris) is thrilled to score an interview with celebrated actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys).  But when he arrives at her apartment, Garrett finds Merrova dead, stabbed through the heart. Like any good newspaperman, he calls not the police, but his editor.  Before you can say "stop the presses!" his newspaper blares this scoop on its front page.  It's only after the late edition comes out that the police find out about the crime and arrive at Merrova's apartment, but they find no body, and no sign of a struggle.  Garrett is perplexed, but insists that Merrova is dead and someone must have moved the body.

Later, Garrett is called into his editor's office, where he is astonished to find Angela Merrova, not only alive, but threatening a monster lawsuit.  Garrett insists that he saw Merrova dead, and that this woman must be an imposter. The editor sees things differently and Garrett is fired. But because he is that plucky breed of newspaperman that we often encounter in old movies, this doesn't deter him.  He seeks out his friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to ask him whether someone with a stab wound of the type Angela Merrova sustained could survive. 

The good-natured Dr. Rhodes is tolerant of Garrett's questions but he's a little busy.  He is preparing to assist hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) with a tricky blood transfusion.  The donor, a man with a rare blood type, hasn't shown up.  Nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) tells him that she has the same rare blood type, and volunteers to take the donor's place for this procedure.

Joan clearly has a crush on the handsome Dr. Rhodes, and volunteering for a transfusion succeeds in catching his attention: after the procedure asks her out on a date.  But instead of dancing under the stars, she ends up tagging along as Rhodes and Garrett check up on the missing blood donor.  They find him dead in his apartment, his body drained of all blood.  In fact the only blood they do manage to find doesn't seem to be human blood at all.

They take the blood sample of Dr. Flegg, but Flegg seems rattled by it, angrily asserting that it's ordinary human blood.  While there, they meet the doctor's creepy assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart), a pallid man with a streak of white running through his hair. Certain that he's seen Quesne somewhere before, Garrett searches the newspaper archives until he stumbles onto the photograph he's looking for: Quesne is none other than Dr. Maurice Xavier, whose diabolical experiments sent him to the electric chair years earlier.  Garrett now knows of two dead people who have turned up alive.  But how is it possible?

Comments: Like Return of the Ape Man and Devil Bat's Daughter, The Return of Dr. X  is a bit of a cheat in that it isn't a sequel at all.  There's absolutely no connection between this movie's Dr. Xavier and the one portrayed by Lionel Atwill in Dr. X.

However, The Return of Doctor X isn't nearly as bad as those two non-sequels.  It's a hybrid of horror and science fiction that's only remarkable for two things:  the fact that it was produced by Warner Brothers (which seldom ventured into the horror genre) and the unlikely presence of Humphrey Bogart, who plays the character of Quesne from beneath a thick layer of makeup and a prominent shock of white hair.

Bogart rarely talked about this movie, and when he did he had nothing good to say about it.  He had appealed to Jack Warner to let him out of the assignment, but he was not yet a big enough star to choose his projects and in the end he had to go through with it.  "You can't believe what this one was like," he said later.  "I had a part that Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played".  In fact the role had been written with the latter in mind, but by the time The Return of Dr. X  went into production Karloff's three-picture deal with Warner had already been fulfilled.  Somebody had to play the role, and without any established horror stars on the lot Bogart ended up with the job. It would prove to be the only horror film of his career.

To his credit Bogart carries on gamely, but he wasn't kidding. This isn't his kind of picture. He comes off like a weirdo in his introductory scene, stroking a white rabbit and peering out from behind a pair of coke-bottle specs, but he can't project the vague sense of unease that you get from Boris Karloff or Vincent Price. There's no real menace behind the character, and as a result the whole movie seems rather slack and perfunctory.

Wayne Morris is ostensibly the lead as the dogged reporter, but he's a little too goofy-looking to be a leading man, and his character is awfullly light-hearted for a horror film.  Then again, most of the newspaper reporters we've encountered on Horror Incorporated have been there mostly for comic relief, or (like Wallace Ford in Night of Terror) have been cheerful blue-collar types, able to see through the bluster of the croquet-and-cucumber-sandwich crowd .  By contrast, reporters in crime dramas have been much more hard-bitten types.

Dennis Morgan is the more conventional leading-man type, and he dutifully checks the movie-romance box with Rosemary Lane's adoring nurse character.  But the romantic subplot doesn't really go anywhere; in fact, Dr. Rhodes hardly seems interested in her at all.  The word "bromance" hadn't been coined yet, but there seems to be a lot more fun to be had hanging out with the reporter at the morgue than taking some stupid girl to a dance. And let's be honest: Rosemary Lane is sweet as apple pie.  But in a noirish thriller, what you're really hoping to meet is a femme fatale.  And the sad truth is that in this film, there isn't a bad girl to be found.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Saturday, November 20, 1971 (Midnight): The Ape (1940) / The Brighton Strangler (1945)

Synopsis: Dr. Bernard Adrian (Boris Karloff)  is widely disliked by his small town neighbors. The locals have few rational reasons for their dislike. Dr. Adrian keeps to himself, but he is civil enough.  Nevertheless there is a general feeling that doesn't belong, and the distinctly vague complaint that he "experiments too much".

The one person in town who adores Dr. Adrian is Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon), a young woman stricken with polio.  Dr. Adrian dotes on her like his own daughter, and this causes resentment from Frances' jealous jerk of a boyfriend Danny (Gene O'Donnell).

Dr. Adrian has been experimenting with the spinal fluid of animals, and he believes he is getting closer to perfecting a serum that will cure those who've been stricken with polio.  At about the same time, a circus comes to town, and Dr. Adrian encourages Danny to take Frances to see it.  Late the same night, an ape badly injures its trainer and escapes from the circus.  The trainer is brought to Dr. Adrian's surgery, but it is clear that the man has little chance of survival.

Soon Dr. Adrian has created a human serum and he begins to treat Frances with it.  The serum causes great pain to her legs, which alarms Danny, but Dr. Adrian sees this as an encouraging sign, since the paralysis had left her without any feeling in her legs whatsoever.  Meanwhile, the ape, which is still on the loose, kills another man, and Dr. Adrian must sign the death certificate.

Frances' reaction to the spinal fluid treatment is encouraging.  While the pain in her legs is growing worse, she is able to move her foot a little -- a clear sign that Dr. Adrian's treatment is working.

Late one night the ape breaks into Dr. Adrian's lab.  Dr. Adrian is able to kill it but not before it smashes his vials of serum. He decides to keep the ape's death a secret.

Soon the county coroner comes to visit Adrian.  It seems the two victims of the ape were both found to have puncture wounds in the spine -- as though Dr. Adrian had injected something into the men -- or extracted something.

Before long, Dr. Adrian is topping up his spinal fluid supply by wearing the ape's skin and murdering those who mocked his work....

Comments: Small-town people do not come off well in Hollywood movies of this era.  Like other horror films from the 1940s -- The Spider Woman Strikes Back, The Man Who Returned To Life and The Devil Commands among them -- small-town folk are depicted in The Ape as a bunch of peevish, paranoid busybodies. There is no reason, really, that anyone should dislike the kindly Dr. Adrian. But of course it's convenient to the plot that they do, because it gives Dr. Adrian an excuse to turn against them an ape's skin around town and.... brutally kill people so.... that he can draw spinal fluid from their corpses....

Aw, I give up. You just can't talk about this movie without banging your shins against its absurd plot points. In the end you just shrug and mumble to yourself, "It's Monogram, Jake. Forget it". Like our last Monogram entry, Return of the Ape Man, this one casually tells an increasingly idiotic story, almost daring you to give up on it.

Working in the film's favor is Boris Karloff,  much more adept at carrying a bad movie than Lugosi  (Karloff is better at carrying good movies too). It's pretty much a standard Karloff mad-scientist picture of the era, albeit somewhat dumber (and a lot chintzier) than the Columbia pictures he'd only recently starred in. 

The screenplay was co-written Curt Siodmak, very loosely based on a 1927 stage play.  Siodmak was already nursing his pet obsession with swapping out brains and brain fluid and so forth. In spite of his one-track mind Siodmak was a decent screenwriter, workmanlike if nothing else, but he doesn't come across very well here.  Monogram wasn't the sort of studio where much care was taken with any aspect of the production, least of all the script; and we have to presume that the first draft of this clunker was good enough for producer Scott Dunlop.

The Brighton Strangler

Synopsis: Celebrated actor Reginald Parker (John Loder) has just completed a successful run on the London stage with the hit play The Brighton Strangler.  The theater manager ruefully notes that he could easily run the show for another year, and he's sorry that Parker has decided to hang up the role.  So arresting is Parker's performance that there's no thought of bringing in another actor to play author-turned-murderer Edward Grey.  For audiences Parker is the Strangler.

It is December 23rd, and after wishing the cast and crew a happy Christmas, Parker prepares to leave the theater and rejoin his wife, who is also the author of the play.  But German bombers are making a nighttime raid on London.  Numerous bombs hit the neighborhood and the theater is destroyed.  Parker staggers away from the ruined building.  He's gotten a nasty knock on the head and he is in a daze.  Has he forgotten who he is?  Not exactly; he remembers that he's Edward Grey, and he heads to Victoria Station and buys a ticket to Brighton.

At the station he meets beautiful young April Manby (June Duprez), a WAAF heading home for Christmas.  Seeing that Parker -- or rather, Grey -- is injured, she helps daub a bit of blood off his forehead.  On the trip to Brighton she confides in him that she has secretly married her sweetheart, an American soldier named Bob Carson (Michael St. Angel).  Upon arriving, April is met by her parents, respected physician Dr. Manby (Gilbert Emery) and his wife (Lydia Bilbrook). They invite Grey to come over and celebrate Christmas Eve at their house the following evening.

The next night, Grey leaves his hotel room and walks to the Manby house.  Along the way he encounters the mayor of Brighton, Herman Brand (Ian Wolfe).  Grey accuses the kindly mayor of being the barrister who had betrayed him -- a charge which puzzles Brand but which we know is taken from the play The Brighton Strangler.  Reaching into his pocket, Grey produces a silk cord, which he'd kept in his pocket after the show closed. He uses the silk cord to strangle Brand, and then proceeds to the Christmas party as though nothing has happened.

Late that evening, Chief Inspector Allison (Miles Mander) arrives at the Manby house.  Everyone is shocked to hear of the murder of the mayor. The following day, the police interview all new arrivals in town, including Grey.  Like the character in the play, Grey is outwardly pleasant and charming.  He says that he is staying in town to write a book, and that he is a friend of the Manby family.  Soon he is crossed off the list of suspects.

April is surprised to learn that Bob is able to join her in Brighton for a few days.  But because of the mayor's funeral, she isn't able to meet him at the station, and she asks Grey to meet him for her.  Grey meets Bob, and takes him over to the hotel.  But as Bob checks into his room, Grey goes to his own room and falls asleep.    He dreams that he is confronting Inspector Allison, who is now another of his persecutors from the play. 

As Bob goes over to his new friends's room to knock, he overhears Grey talking angrily in his sleep -- vowing revenge, and threatening to kill an unseen someone....

Comments: There's something inherently nutty about actors. They tend to be rootless types who spend their days crying and emoting and otherwise pretending to be people they aren't. And while Reginald Parker isn't a Method actor, he is so wrapped up in his fake life that he's only one knock on the head away from trading it in for his real life.

This is the sort of premise that could easily descend into self-parody, and as a result the screenwriters are careful not to portray Parker as a guy obsessed with the role he plays.  As the movie opens we're told that Parker has chosen to stop playing the Strangler on stage, even though the show is a hit.  Acting might be his profession, but he isn't a weirdo about it -- he has a real life offstage.  He is a loving and attentive husband, and he looks forward to collaborating on other projects with his playwright wife.  He is unfailingly kind and courteous to everyone on the cast and crew, and we accept that his success hasn't turned him into a boor or a megalomaniac.

Once his credentials as a nice, well-adjusted person are established (see, he's not like an actor at all!) we get to the bombing raid that drops part of the roof onto his head.  The is actually a great device, much more dramatic than if he had fallen off his bicycle or walked into a lamppost, but the wartime setting also presents a risk: wartime pictures look dated just as soon as the war in question is over.  I imagine the producers were sweating bullets about that, wondering if the war would end before their movie was released.  In fact The Brighton Strangler was released before the end of the war, but just barely,  in April of 1945.

 As unlikely a premise as this is, The Brighton Strangler is a pretty good little thriller, helped enormously by the presence of John Loder as Reginald Parker / Edward Grey.  Loder has an easygoing charm that puts us on his side, and although he doesn't quite pull off the deranged serial killer bit (he was a bit too wholesome-looking to come across as dangerous) he's still required to carry a lot of the film himself, and he does.

The lovely June Duprez brings us a very self-assured April Manby, and Miles Mander is quite likable as the ill-fated Inspector Allison. Ian Wolfe shows up -- he seems to have been born elderly -- as the town mayor, and Michael St. Angel has some funny scenes as the all-too-American Bob, who keeps his British hosts baffled by a never-ending stream of American slang -- "skip it", "juke joint","on the nose", "don't snap your cap," etc. But amusingly St. Angel is evidently British -- at one point he tells Parker / Grey "I'll ring you up", a Britishism that no American could have delivered with a straight face. Who's the phony now?