Friday, December 27, 2013

Saturday, December 25, 1971: The Lady and the Monster (1944) / Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller's residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he's obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn't above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances of his getting an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller's assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.

The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man's brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man's head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name "W. H. Donovan" over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory's behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory's body is being possessed by Donovan's brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan's will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan's connection with the man?  And -- what will Donovan's brain do in order to keep Cory's body under its control?

Comments: Curt Siodmak scripted a number of successful horror films in the 1940s, most of which we have already seen on Horror Incorporated.  But he's probably best known as the author of the bestselling novel Donovan's Brain,  first published in 1942.  It was adapted for the screen several times, most successfully in a 1953 version starring Lew Ayres (interestingly, the radio anthology series Suspense also did a two-part adaptation in 1943, with Orson Welles playing Cory).  The Lady and the Monster was the first attempt to bring it to the screen, and while it isn't as good as the better-known Lew Ayres version, it's not bad.

In this version Cory works for an older and somewhat creepier scientist named Mueller, who is played with teutonic sternness by Eric von Stroheim.  There's no clear reason why this character was added.  Perhaps it was felt a romantic triangle would provide a human element to the wacky brain-in-a-glass-jar plotline, or that Cory couldn't make the questionable ethical decisions he made in the book and still retain the sympathy of the audience; or maybe the screenwriter reasoned that a disembodied brain bobbing around in an aquarium didn't make the best antagonist.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach.  On the minus side it dilutes the story somewhat, and makes Cory, who is supposed to be the protagonist, a less active agent than he is in the novel and in the 1953 version.

On the plus side we get to see Eric von Stroheim in front of the camera, and he's always great to watch.  He glowers and murmurs ominously, and adds a good deal of menace to the goings-on at the Castle.  But in the end he isn't really necessary.  W.H. Donovan -- at least as he's refracted through the brain and into Cory's body -- is antagonist enough, and there is a real sense of mystery and menace surrounding it, enough to set this opus apart from the other poverty-row efforts we've seen recently, all of which seem to involve scientists trying to extend life beyond its normal limits.

The Lady and the Monster is often singled out for ridicule thanks to the presence of Vera Ralston (nee Hruba), a European figure skater whom Republic Pictures head Herbert J. Yates tried to develop as a movie star. The fact that Yates and Ralston were romantically linked shouldn't come as a surprise, especially when you see Ralston act.  Like Marion Davies before her, Ralston's conspicuous lack of talent made her something of a punchline in the movie industry; but in fact, while Ralston isn't great, she isn't terrible either.  She does not embody an Acquanetta-level amateurishness, but is in fact on a par with a moderately talented but forgettable college thespian. She does all right as Cory's worried girlfriend, but seems somewhat out of her depth as a lab assistant, flailing around in a flustered sort of way every time Dr. Mueller shouts for a gigli saw -- which he does quite a lot.

Night of Terror

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).

Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment. 

 Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancĂ©e, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household. 

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household -- including the servants -- shares in the inheritance. What's more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?

Comments: Night of Terror has proven to be something of a second-feature staple on Horror Incorporated.  I don't imagine it gets seen much at all these days; like a lot of titles from this era, it has pretty much dropped from obscurity into oblivion since broadcast TV quit showing old movies.  But I see it on a fairly regular basis.  To be honest,  it's not a film that benefits from repeat viewing. 

One of the most puzzling things about this film - indeed, a number of horror films of the 1930s and 1940s -- was the use the studio made of Bela Lugosi.  If you look at the poster above, you see Lugosi's face prominently displayed, and his name (BELA "Dracula" LUGOSI) is given top billing.  Yet Lugosi is not only in a supporting role, but a fairly small one.  As we've noted in the past, he functions as a red herring.  

His prominence in the promotional materials seems tacit admission of his status as a bankable star; but the uses to which he's put in movies like this indicate that there was a lack of trust in his ability to actually carry a movie. This is the sort of paradox that provides ammunition to both the pro-Lugosi and anti-Lugosi film writers.  And they aren't shy about sniping away at each other.

Universal Horrors, the influential Brunas and Weaver overview of Universal's golden age, never missed an opportunity to skewer Lugosi as a dreadful ham unfettered by any discernible talent. But the authors were at a loss to explain why Lugosi's infrequent starring roles (e.g., Return of the Vampire) kept making money.

I've always been fairly agnostic on the question.  Lugosi was unquestionably a ham, but the early sound era favored acting styles that we think of today as overly broad. While he was a fairly limited actor who made poor career decisions, he did have a certain appeal and the studios knew it. Whatever doubts they harbored about Lugosi were in spite of, rather than because of, his performance at the box office.

The truth is, while dollar signs are the big persuader in Hollywood, they don't always overcome personal opinion.  That Lugosi's star turns made money no doubt carried some weight, but his films evidently didn't make enough money to burn through the prejudices that were already in place.

William Goldman once observed that in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything". But of course the decision-makers in Hollywood think they know everything. The execs were all certain that Lugosi's films couldn't make money.  When they didn't, that was taken as evidence that they were right.  And when they did -- well, they just decided not to spend much time thinking about that.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Saturday, December 17, 1971 (Midnight): Three Strangers (1946) / Behind the Mask (1932)

Synopsis: London barrister Jerome K. Arbutny (Sydney Greenstreet) is walking along the street when he meets beautiful Crystal Shackleford (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  After a bit of flirtatious small talk, she invites him up to her apartment.  Once there, he is dismayed to find another man already there, a cheerful tippler named Johnny West (Peter Lorre).  Johnny was lured up to her apartment with the same come-hither glance that roped in Arbutny.

Crystal reveals the reason for bringing the two men to her apartment.  Crystal has in her possession a statue of  Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of good fortune. According to legend, Crystal says, if three strangers make a wish over the statue at midnight of the Chinese new year, the wish will be granted. If there is one wish they can agree on, they can all share in the good fortune provided by Kwan Yin.

Johnny has an Irish sweepstakes ticket, and he suggests they all wish for it to be a winner, then sign an agreement to divide any winnings from the ticket.

The others quickly agree to this, and a contract of sorts is hastily written up.  The clock strikes midnight as the strangers concentrate on their wish, and it seems for a moment that the statue is smiling at them; but soon the moment is gone and the three go their separate ways.

We then follow the strangers in turn and discover that each one has arrived at a moment of crisis in their lives. Crystal's estranged husband David (Alan Napier) has fallen in love with a Canadian woman and wants a divorce, but Crystal refuses to grant one. Arbutny has made a series of unwise investments with money entrusted to him by the widowed Lady Beladon (Rosalind Ivan). Facing professional ruin when the secret gets out, he has decided to propose marriage to her in order to conceal his financial mismanagement.  Meanwhile, Johnny has fallen in with a rough crowd, and he is currently being sought for a crime he didn't commit. His only hope for redemption lies with his girlfriend, the devoted Janet (Marjorie Riordon).

Johnny ends up in the hospital, and only by chance discovers that the Irish sweepstakes ticket won.  But unbeknownst to him, Arbutny and Shackleford have each decided, for their own reasons, that Johnny need never know about the money....

Comments: There is so little to this Warner Brothers trifle that could be considered horror -- even borderline horror -- that I actually went back to the Minneapolis Tribune archives to make sure I had the right movie.  According to the schedule, I did.  But I suspect the audience tuning in on this particular night didn't agree - which leads us, inevitably, to the late lamented Monster Chiller Horror Theater.

It seems likely that this movie found its way onto the KSTP schedule because of a) its slight element of fantasy and b) the presence of Peter Lorre in the cast.  A newspaper logline might lead you to believe that the fantasy elements are stronger than they actually are.  And I suspect that lured many an unsuspecting viewer to the tube that evening.

In fact, horror movie fans weren't the only ones likely to feel cheated.  The presence of Lorre and Greenstreet (and the Warner Brothers logo) fooled many over the years into thinking that it's a film noir.  But it's far too light a confection to fit into that category either.

Okay, so it's not a horror film.  How does it stack up as a movie?

I wish that I could answer that, but as I spent the whole time trying to weigh its (ultimately non-existent) horror content, I'm afraid I didn't really give the movie a fair chance.  Much like the Ingmar Bergman movie on Monster Chiller Horror Theater, it's got to be judged on whether it delivers the scares.  And unfortunately it doesn't.  The tenuous fantasy element is just a bit of whimsy, really, and doesn't drive the plot to any real extent.  But Peter Lorre is quite winning as Johnny West, and Sydney Greenstreet is pleasant to watch in any role. Geraldine Fitzgerald is quite engaging as the one who dreams up the whole scheme and she is also, as you might expect, as beautiful as the dawn.

 Behind the Mask

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his private hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: Listen up, you mug. We're gonna watch Behind the Mask again. Why?  Well, you sat through Three Strangers, didn't ya?

Sure, you felt a little cheated when nothing scary happened in the first feature. And Behind the Mask isn't exactly a horror movie either.  But it's a real meat-and-potatoes murder story, buster. Jack Holt is such a tough guy he shoots himself in the arm, just to gain the confidence of his fellow hoods. Dr. Steiner's got a hospital where he gives people unnecessary operations.  Everybody's scared of hospitals, right?

Plus the evil Mr. X has more high-tech gadgets than a Bond villain.  He's even got a telephone answering machine!  With that kind of futuristic technology, the feds are going to have a hard time catching up with him!

Look, I've written about this movie before, and I don't have a lot more to say about it.  That's because I'm a man of few words -- a man of action.  And this is the kind of movie a real man can sit down and watch with a beer in his hand. You're not going to find a lot of people sitting around and crying or talking about their feelings. Nope, it's all prison escapes, shootouts, secret passages, betrayals, fistfights and manly dialogue. And mister, that's my kind of movie.