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?


kochillt said...

Karloff only kills one (admittedly obnoxious) character, and gets shot the second time he dons the suit. Who would have thought Bernard Adrian was so skilled a surgeon that he could skin an escaped ape and produce a perfect fit? Many of the same elements (particularly spinal fluid) would be recycled for Lugosi's THE APE MAN. THE BRIGHTON STRANGLER is another title I've heard of but never seen. John Loder had starred opposite Karloff in 1936's THE MAN WHO CHANGED HIS MIND, and he was surprisingly effective after Boris switched minds with his character, a non smoker puffing away in front of leading lady Anna Lee, tipping her off as to what happened.

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