Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saturday, December 11, 1971: The Walking Dead (1936) / Soul of a Monster (1944)

Synopsis: Mob attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) is dead certain he's got Judge Shaw (Joe King) scared -- so scared that he's sure to acquit Nolan's underworld client.  But to his surprise, Judge Shaw doesn't knuckle under, and the man is sentenced to ten years at Sing Sing.

For the mob, this is intolerable. Shaw has to be taken care of, or future mob threats won't carry any weight.  The trouble is, any action against Shaw will implicate Nolan and his associates. 

A solution is found in one John Ellman (Boris Karloff) a quiet man who's just finished a stretch in prison, thanks to Judge Shaw. Mob fixer Loder (Barton MacLane)  arranges for Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to bump into Ellman, strike up a conversation, and offer him a job. Posing as a private detective, Trigger tells Ellman that Shaw's wife, suspicious of an affair, has hired him to shadow the judge. He wants Ellman to stake out Shaw's house and take notes on his comings and goings.

This, of course, establishes Ellman's presence outside the judge's house for several successive nights.  And on the last night Ellman returns to his car to find a body lying in the back seat -- that of Judge Shaw.  But as luck would have it, a young couple -- Nancy (Marguerite Churchill) and Jimmy (Warren Hull) are passing by and witness the shady characters planting the body in Ellman's car.

Soon Elman is on trial for Shaw's murder -- and just to make sure he's convicted, Nolan himself is representing the unlucky ex-con.

Nancy and Jimmy debate whether to get involved in the case, knowing that the reach of the mob is quite long.  In the end they decide to come forward with what they know -- but it's too late, and Ellman is executed for the crime.

But the young couple's employer Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) himself steps forward with a radical suggestion: with the experimental technique Beaumont has developed, Ellman can be brought back to life....

Comments:  Hey, remember The Return of Dr. X  from just a couple a weeks ago?  This was the  Michael Curtiz thriller that starred a miscast Humphrey Bogart in the title role.  Return had been written for Boris Karloff during his three-picture deal with Warner Brothers, but by the time the script was finished Karloff had fulfilled his contract and moved on. Tonight we get to see one of the films Karloff actually made for the studio.  

One thing that jumps out at you about The Walking Dead is that it's definitely a Warner picture.  It begins like any number of Warner crime dramas, with fast-talking mobsters, cheap gunsels, a tough-but-well-meaning D.A., and a courageous judge who refuses to knuckle under to the hoodlums who are threatening his family. And fitting right in is Karloff himself as an unlucky ex-con, already wrongly convicted once, who's being set up to take the fall for one doozy of a murder.

The only thing that can save John Ellman is the testimony of a young couple that witnessed the body being dumped into Ellman's car.  So the first half of The Walking Dead ends with a race against time: will Nancy and her boyfriend  step forward in time to exonerate Ellman?  They do, but the person they contact isn't the D.A., but Ellman's own attorney, who wants Ellman dead.  He makes sure to wait until the very last minute before contacting the D.A.  Even so, it's a very near thing, and there's considerable tension as we wait for the governor's phone call, which comes only seconds too late.  It should be noted that these death row scenes are very well done, and are really the high point of the movie.

Upon Ellman's death, The Walking Dead changes into another picture entirely.  It happens that the young lovers are scientists,  assisting the kindly Dr. Beaumont with his experiments, which involve artificial stimulation of the heart. Thus Dr. Beaumont, finding out they are too late, urgently requests that the standard autopsy be suspended; he wants to try to revive Ellman using his ground-breaking technique.

Ellman is successfully revived, and while he has a limp (and a shock of white hair reminiscent of Bogart's in The Return of Dr. X) he's actually doing great for a guy who had 10,000 volts run through him earlier in the day.  But here's the funny thing: The Walking Dead now changes into yet another movie, shifting gears from science fiction to horror.  Suddenly Ellman, fresh off the boat from the Great Beyond, now has a couple of preternatural abilities: he can recognize the men responsible for his unjust execution, even if he hasn't met them; and he has the means to punish them.

His method of execution is grimly amusing: he shows up where each man happens to be (it doesn't matter where they go, he seems able to find them) and slowly limps toward them, glowering.  The freaked-out hoods panic and fall out windows, or stumble onto their own firearms just as they discharge, or run out in front of moving trains. Meanwhile, Dr. Beaumont wants to quiz Ellman about what he's seen beyond the grave. He goes a bit overboard in his efforts and winds up looking like a bit of a nut; even when Ellman's dying (again) of a gunshot wound Beaumont won't stop yapping about it.

Karloff turns in a great performance here as the tormented Ellman, and Ricardo Cortez is absolutely perfect as slick mob lawyer Nolan.  Marguerite Churchill is a welcome presence in any movie, but unfortunately her part is so thinly written that very little of her considerable charm shows through. Edmund Gwenn's part isn't much better, but Gwenn is such a likable guy that he makes his rather pedestrian role his own.  We also get to see Joe Sawyer in a small role. Sawyer was a hard-working character actor who didn't appear in much horror or science fiction; but he would do a memorable turn in Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space in 1953.

The Soul of a Monster

Synopsis: George Winson (George Macready) is a famous surgeon and humanitarian who is dying in a city hospital.   An accidental tear in his surgical glove exposed him to an infection, and now he only has hours to live.  It seems everyone in the city has some memory of his kindness and selflessness, and it seems that everyone has joined together in mourning him.

George has come to accept his fate, but his wife Ann (Jeanne Bates) is another story. She is angry that a man who has contributed so much to the world is being taken out of it before his time, while others who do evil and contribute nothing live on.  George's devout friend Fred (Erik Rolf) tries to console her, telling her it is God's will, but Ann will have none of it.  What God, she asks Fred, would allow such an unjust thing to happen? Either God doesn't exist or he has abandoned George; either way, she wants nothing to do with him.  She then says that if any other force in the world -- the Devil, for example -- would intervene and save George, then she would owe that force her allegiance.  And to prove the point, she calls out to the Devil, asking for George to be saved.

At that very moment a woman in black walks along the darkened streets of the city.  She never breaks stride for a moment, and walks right into the path of an oncoming car.  The couple driving the car slam on the brakes, and leap out, thinking they struck her - but no one is there.  The woman in black continues walking, unconcerned at a downed powerline that is sparking only a few feet away from her.  She walks into a building up to the very room where George is dying.

The woman tells those assembled that her name is Lilyan Gregg and that she heard Ann's offer.  Does it still stand?  Ann says it does, and at the woman's word, George begins to recover.  

The next day the newspapers are filled with the amazing news: George Winson has made a seemingly miraculous recovery.  But Fred is deeply disturbed by George's behavior.  He is now distant and cold, no longer the kind and compassionate man he once was.  He snarls at his faithful dog, throwing a pair of hedge clippers at it in a fit of rage.  Fred later discovers that the dog has been killed, and its blood is on George's work gloves.   Ann is having second thoughts too, as George displays an increasingly rude and dismissive attitude toward her.

And there are other strange things: when George holds a flower in his hands, it immediately shrivels and dies.  He seems to have no pulse.  And when Ann accidentally cuts him, he does not bleed....

Comments:  This low-key Columbia thriller is somewhat less interested in telling a story than it is in delivering a sermon, but to its credit it tries hard to be different.  Lacking much in the way of budget it goes for the  stylishness that Val Lewton brought to his horror films at RKO. Like most of the Lewton imitators (and there were a lot of them in the mid-40s)  it doesn't entirely succeed, but it stands out as an interesting curio.

As I've noted before, Ann's angry denunciation of God, and her blatant call for the Devil's assistance, is pretty daring for the 1940s. In those days religious faith, when it was discussed in films at all, was something that characters would hold onto firmly but express only in the vaguest terms.  Never would a character express doubt about God's existence or intentions, even obliquely; and summoning the Devil was normally reserved for only the most corrupt and dissolute characters.

It should be noted that there was nothing in the old Production Code that prohibited Soul of a Monster from taking this approach; rather, seems to have been more a concession to popular taste. The Hayes office was more concerned with language (no use of "God" or "Christ"" in any but reverent way)  how the clergy was depicted (they could never be revealed to be buffoons or criminals) and how criminality was rewarded (bad guys had to get their comeuppance in the end). In the main, it was specific actions, rather than themes, that got the attention of industry censors.

The Devil, as embodied by the mysterious Lilyan Gregg, appears to have an interesting m.o.   Rather than going for quantity over quality, as the Devil is wont to do in books and movies, here the Devil sees an opportunity to alter the trajectory of one key do-gooder's life, thus corrupting all the people who look up to him. 

Most of the films we've seen on Horror Incorporated have enjoyed decent home video releases, many of them struck from restored negatives. This means that the on-screen images we see today are usually better than would have been broadcast on TV back in the 70s.

But some films, like this one, were never released on home video at all.  Obtaining these titles on DVD is possible, but it can be expensive, and the discs aren't usually of commercial quality. As you can see by the screen shots I've posted,  the DVD I own was pulled from very poor source material; the print is so murky it looks like it was photographed from the bottom of a swimming pool, and the nighttime scenes are so dark it's often unclear what's going on.  The sound is muddy and almost incomprehensible in places.  

But as Columbia is unlikely to invest in a restoration and video release of such an obscure title, we're lucky we have any extant copies at all.  Fortunately, we haven't encountered a Horror Incorporated title that's completely lost.  At least, not yet. One film, The Man Who Returned To Life, was listed as a lost film on some collector sites, but happily you can't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Saturday, December 4, 1971: Isle of the Dead (1945) / Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Synopsis: During the First Balkan War of 1912, General Nikolas Pherides (Boris Karloff) punishes one of his subordinates in the Greek army, an officer whose troops arrived late to the front during the battle that has just concluded.  Despite the officer’s protests, and despite the battle's evident success, Pherides strips him of rank and gives him a pistol, allowing him to commit suicide.  This cold-blooded behavior is questioned by American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer). But Pherides replies that what might seem like cruelty is simply grim necessity.  War, the general says, does not allow for mistakes or excuses. He notes that the punished officer was an old friend of his.  

Walking outside with Davis, Pherides points out the men who are hauling bodies from the battlefield on a cart.  They are working late into the night, the general says, because the bodies must be disposed of immediately.  Cholera and septicemia are constant hazards on the battlefield. Once diseases of that kind begin to spread, there is little to stop them, and they can quickly wipe out a fighting force.

The general mentions that his own wife died many years ago, and that she is buried in a crypt on a nearby island, an island that serves solely as a cemetery.  The two decide to go and visit the grave, and they take a rowboat over to the island.  But the general is distressed to find that his wife’s grave has been desecrated; in fact all the coffins in his wife’s crypt have been broken into, and now the bodies are missing.   The two are about to return to the mainland when they hear a woman singing a haunting melody.  This surprises both men, since they were unaware that anyone else was on the island.

Following the singing, they find a number of people at the caretaker’s house. Albrecht (Jason Robards, Sr.) is an archeologist whose work on the island years ago incited the locals to desecrate graves in search of valuable antiquities. Mortified, Albrecht retired from his profession and has been living on the island ever since, having bought the caretaker's house from Madam Kyra (Helene Thimig).

Also staying on the island during the fighting on the mainland are St. Aubyn (Alan Napier), his wife,  the ailing Mary (Katherine Emery), and the nervous Mr. Robbins (Skelton Knaggs).  There is also Thea (Ellen Drew), a lovely young woman whose singing drew the men to the house.

Madam Kyra is convinced there is evil afoot in the house, and she draws General Pherides aside to tell him that she suspects the presence of a "vorvalacka"  -- a supernatural being that suffuses itself with life by draining the health and vitality of those around it.  Pherides laughs off this suggestion, telling her that he is too old to believe such stories.

Davis wants to stay overnight in the caretaker's house, as he hasn't slept in a real bed in months.  Though he doesn't mention it, he'd also welcome the opportunity to get to know Thea better.  Pherides reluctantly agrees, figuring that he'll be able to inspect the shore artillery at first light on his way back to camp.  However, during the night Mr. Robbins dies.  Knowing that Robbins' symptoms are consistent with an outbreak of septicemia, Pherides summons the camp physician.  Sure enough, Robbins is declared to have been killed by the plague.  This means that the islanders are quarantined, and no one can come or go from there, including the camp doctor, reporter Davis or Pherides himself.

One by one, those on the island fall to the plague.  Madam Kyra insists that the deaths on the island aren't caused by plague, but by  the vorvalacka.  And Pherides, that practical, world-weary man of facts and reason, begins to wonder if perhaps she is right. Maybe the sinister being exists after all, and maybe it is none other than  the beautiful Thea herself, who remains the very picture of health even as those around her are dying of the plague....

Comments:  Isle of the Dead is the first Val Lewton film to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated, and while it is considered to be one of Lewton's lesser works, it perfectly captures why his movies have had such an impact on audiences through the years.  Lewton's approach to horror is unique. His movies are atmospheric,  lyrical, almost dreamlike in the way they unfold.  Their themes tend to be existential: death is always lurking just off-camera, and -- inevitably -- something beyond death too.

The title, as well as the haunting image of the island itself, is taken from a famous 19th-century painting by Arnold Bocklin.  The painting depicts an island enclosed by forbidding stone cliffs.  Towering cypress trees -- strongly associated with cemeteries -- grow in the island's center. A boat is being rowed to the island seawall; a hooded figure in white stands in the bow, just behind a white object which is usually interpreted as a coffin.

Lewton was both frightened and fascinated by the painting as a child and he clearly wanted to make a film that captured its aura of mystery.

The plot moves forward in a leisurely way, slowly building a sense of dread rather than trying to shock or terrify the audience.  This tactic actually works quite well; we are inevitably drawn quite skillfully into the movie's reality.   Lewton is forced to depend on a keen eye rather than a big budget to render its carefully-constructed verisimilitude. With a few historical references and modest costumes, he manages to convincingly set his film in the midst of the First Balkan War (all the scenes are shot on fairly small soundstages, and the distant view we have of the island is a matte painting).   There are, in fact, only 11 speaking roles in the film. 

Lewton's protagonists tend to be practical and fairly unimaginative people,  who are drawn unwillingly into the world of the strange and the supernatural. In Cat People, a nautical engineer marries a foreign woman with a deadly family curse; in I Walked With a Zombie a nurse finds herself mixed up with black magic when she takes a job in the Caribbean; and in Isle of the Dead a battle-hardened general comes to believe in the fearsome vorvalacka .

Interestingly, the success of Lewton's signature style had no impact whatsoever on the way his films were sold.  If you were to judge by the marketing materials, Karloff plays just another glowering nut.  "ABANDON ALL HOPE!  FOR THIS IS THE ISLE OF THE DEAD!" the trailer screams. "RULED BY BORIS KARLOFF....WHO SEALS THE DOOM OF ALL WHO DARE ESCAPE!"

Of course Karloff's character isn't at all what the trailer leads you to believe. He isn't a lunatic, doesn't "rule" the island, and he isn't sealing anybody's doom -- in fact, he forbids the others from leaving the island in order to prevent the plague from spreading.

  Lewton had pretty much cornered the market on this sort of atmospheric fare since he was named the head of RKO's horror unit in 1942.  His first project was Jacque Tournier's Cat People in 1942, a low-budget hit that gave him a remarkable amount of creative freedom with the studio.

In spite of the catch-penny titles (I Walked With a Zombie is guaranteed to trigger a snort of derisive laughter from those who haven't seen it) these films are quite sophisticated, and Karloff always seemed grateful to have appeared in this film as well as Lewton's Bedlam and The Body Snatcher.  It's tempting to say that Val Lewton's early demise cut short his career  (he died in 1951, at the age of 46) but the last of his influential cycle of films came some five years earlier.  But he left behind a remarkable body of work, absolutely unlike that of any other horror producer.

Cry of the Werewolf

Synopsis: Dr. Charles Morris (Fritz Leiber) operates a museum of the occult, located in the former mansion of a famous Gypsy queen named Marie LaTour.  Dr. Morris tells assistant Elsa Chauvet (Osa Massen) that he is about to publish a ground-breaking work on Marie LaTour, which will reveal important new information about her life.  

Elsa leaves to pick up Dr. Morris' son Bob (Stephen Crane) at the train station, but when the two of them return to the LaTour mansion they find Dr. Morris has been killed by an animal - apparently a wolf.  Moreover, the notes he has compiled for his manuscript have been tossed into the fireplace and are mostly burned, and a tour guide who was present at the museum is now babbling incoherently, his mind apparently broken by what he witnessed.

Bob and Elsa devise a way to reconstruct some of the information from the burned notes, and this leads them to investigate the mythology and practices of the Gypsies.  Marie LaTour had purportedly been a werewolf, and as the Gypsies are a matriarchal society, her daughter -- also named Marie LaTour -- has inherited her lycanthropy.
Meanwhile, Lt. Barry Lane (Barton McLane) doggedly tries to solve the murder without resorting to occult explanations.  This is surprisingly difficult, since Elsa, his first prime suspect, is cleared because her fingerprints don't match those found at the scene of the crime, and museum janitor Jan Spavero, his second prime suspect, ends up getting mauled by a wolf....

 Comments: After our sojourn to Val Lewton's island, we're now back in familiar ground with Columbia's Cry of the Werewolf.  This is the third broadcast of the movie on Horror Incorporated, and it has been firmly relegated to second-feature status.  It's relatively low-octane stuff, with the shocks and special effects kept to a minimum. The same could be said, of course, for Isle of the Dead, but the creative decisions made in that film were  in service to the plot.  Here, they appear to be due to  a lack of both money and imagination.

Columbia had never shown much interest in the horror genre, aside from a string of standard-issue mad scientist pictures written for Boris Karloff in 1939 - 1940, when he was under contract with the studio. Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire came along a few years later, and was an obvious homage to the previous decade's Universal horror films.  It was the success of that film that paved the way for Cry of the Werewolf.

Unfortunately,  Cry of the Werewolf  lacks a few things that were present in Return of the Vampire.  We have neither a strong protagonist nor antagonist.  Instead of the Van Helsing-esque Lady Ainsley, who had been played with great verve by Frieda Inescort, our attention is split between Ona Masson as Elsa Chauvet and Stephen Crane as Bob Morris.  Masson, it should be said, is an engaging actress.  The trouble here is her character is almost entirely passive: her main function is to moon over the painfully dull Bob.  

As for an antagonist, there isn't a Bela Lugosi in sight. Instead we get Nina Foch, who did well enough as young Nicki Saunders in Return of the Vampire. But she is miscast here, pressed  into service as gypsy queen Marie LaTour.  She is a bit young for the part,  distinctly lacking in gravitas and never comes across as much of a threat, despite her ability to change into a wolf.  You'd think that would establish her badass bona fides, but somehow Foch seems like a rather perfunctory villain.