Monday, December 15, 2014

Friday, May 12, 1972: The Black Pit of Dr. M (1956) / The Phantom of Crestwood (1933)

Synopsis: In 19th-century Mexico, Dr. Mazali  (Rafael Bertrand) and Dr. Aldama (Antonio Raxel) have made a pact: the one who dies first will return from the afterlife and tell the other of what awaits beyond the grave.  One night Dr. Aldama falls gravely ill, and Dr. Mazali reminds him of his promise.  Soon Dr. Aldama dies.  On the evening the his funeral, Mazali summons his friend Dr. Gonzales (Luis Aragon) and a medium, in order to summon Dr. Aldama's spirit.  Contact with the spirit world is made, and Dr. Mazali asks if it is possible for him to travel to the afterlife and return to his own body.  Yes, says Dr. Aldama through the medium; but there is a terrible price to be paid for such a transgression against God's laws. However if Mazali wants to go through with it, he can take the journey into the afterlife at precisely 9:00 pm on the fifteenth of the month. After that, he is told, there will be no more opportunities to travel to the other side.

Meanwhile, night club dancer Patricia (Mapita Cortez) becomes agitated when she sees a young man in the club whom she recognizes, even though she has never met him. She has seen him in her dreams, just as he has seen her; troubled, she quits her job and returns home.  There she meets the late Dr. Aldama. She is not alarmed by this because while she knows she is Dr. Aldama's daughter, he left when she was still a baby, and does not remember him, nor has she ever seen a photograph of him. He asks her if she is in possession of a locket.  Patricia says she is, and Dr. Aldama tells her there is a secret compartment within it. He tells her how to open it, and Patricia discovers the hidden compartment and what is concealed within it -- a tiny key.

Aldama tells her to take the key to Dr. Mazali, who will know what to do with it.

Later, Dr. Mazali meets with Patricia and she gives him the key, saying the man she met was a representative of her father.  Dr. Mazali shows her a portrait of Aldama and Patricia confirms that this is the man she met.  Opening the box, they find Patricia's birth certificate, some jewelry clearly meant for her and a letter opener that bears a strange warning: "May the fire of hell consume the one who uses me for evil"....

Comments: Mexico isn't known for its film output, let alone its fantasy and horror films (aside from the unavoidable and deeply peculiar Santo series), but the Black Pit of Dr. M has a sumptuous look reminiscent of Hammer's period pieces and a creeping sense of dread that was clearly influenced by Universal's golden age.  It was directed by Fernando Mendez, who made a spate of similar horror films around this time, including El Vampiro and El Ataud Del Vampiro (both 1957).

There's no question that Dr. Mazali's decision to monkey around with the occult is not going to end well for anybody; but pure scientific curiosity is what drives him, not a desire for power or revenge or eternal life, which so often motivated the protagonists of Universal mellers. 

This film is also distinguished by a pretty densely-plotted script and performances that are skillful but perhaps a bit stodgy, with Rafael Bertrand providing a great deal of gravitas as Dr. Mazali and Luis Aragon functioning capably as his Dr. Watson. Mapita Cortez is excellent as the increasingly baffled Patricia. Mexican performers tend to be a bit over-the-top but we see an unusually understated cast here, with the exception of Carlos Ancira, playing Elmer the orderly, whose face is hideously disfigured with acid and who spends much of the movie skulking around Dr. Mazali's compound like a monster.  His performance is a bit remiscent of Pablo Alverez Rubio's hysterical scenery-chewing in the Spanish-language Dracula (1931). Throughout director Mendez does a very good job of building an eerie atmosphere of suspense, and overall this movie is a nice change of pace from the poverty-row programmers we've been seeing lately. Unfortunately the print I watched was a subtitled Spanish print, so I can't comment on the English dub. 

The Phantom of Crestwood

Synopsis: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is a professional gold-digger who has grown tired of her racket and has decided to retire.  Her disillusionment stems from the recent death of Tom Herrick (Tom Douglas) a young man whom Jenny had strung along --  until she discovered that his wealthy father had disowned him because of their relationship.  Jenny dumped Tom on the spot, telling him that the only thing she'd been interested in was his money. Despondent, Tom threw himself off a cliff and Jenny has been haunted by his death ever since.

She plans to leave her lavish Los Angeles apartment behind and sail away to Europe. A prospective buyer for the apartment appears unannounced, a man who goes by the name of Farnsbarnes (Ricardo Cortez).  In fact, the man is a career criminal named Curtis who has been dispatched to find incriminating letters known to be in Jenny Wren's possession. 

Jenny needs a retirement nest egg, so she visits bank manager Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) and instructs him to throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, the Andes family retreat, and to bring along three of his business associates --Eddie Mack (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher), William Jones (Gavin Gordon) and Senator Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) -- each of whom is on the list of her wealthiest clients.

When the men arrive -- not suspecting a shakedown -- Jenny demands that they pay her a total of $150,000 as a farewell gift.  The men balk, insisting that they are unable to raise that kind of money. But Jenny is undeterred.  They will find a way, she says -- because if they don't, she will release enough evidence of their indiscretions to ruin them all.

Curtis arrives at Crestwood with a few of his henchmen. At just about the same time a ghost appears  -- the ghost of poor Tom Herrick. Moments later Jenny ends up dead, the back of her neck punctured by one of the hefty steel darts used in the game room. 

Now Curtis, fearing he'll be accused of the crime, must play detective in order to find out who killed Jenny Wren, and unmask the Phantom of Crestwood....

Comments: I've never seen a TV print of The Phantom of Crestwood, so I don't know if it included the original pre-credits sequence featuring the NBC radio orchestra and announcer Graham McNamee. It would make sense if the scene were deleted; TV viewers in the 1970s wouldn't have heard of McNamee, the radio drama referenced, or the contest connected with both.

The contest was a marketing gimmick applied to the theatrical release of The Phantom of Crestwood when it premiered in 1932.  NBC radio had broadcast a version of this old-dark-house thriller, but without an ending.  Listeners were encouraged to send in their own ideas for how the mystery should be resolved. The winning entry, it was promised, would get a cash prize.  The studio hoped that this would get listeners excited about going to see the movie and find out if "their" ending was picked. 

The movie turned a solid profit for RKO, and probably would have done so regardless of the marketing campaign.  The Phantom of Crestwood is a ripping good yarn, one that actually works better with the gimmick set aside.

Like a lot of pre-code Hollywood movies, this one seems particularly daring because films became so tame after the Hayes Office was established.  The script here is fairly explicit in identifying Jenny Wren as a top-dollar escort, and when she demands that Priam throw her a farewell party at Crestwood, his scandalized look is priceless.  We are given to understand that Jenny has been to parties at Crestwood many times before -- but always as the entertainment, never as a guest. Now she will be there as an equal to Priam and the other men who had rented her affections, drinking their wine and rubbing elbows with their wives.

Jenny's decision to turn the tables on the wealthy bankers and politicians who had been using her no doubt struck a chord with Depression-era audiences, who would have enjoyed seeing the high rollers sweat it out for a change. 

Karen Morley leads a very strong cast here.  Morley's character is killed about a third of the way through, but that doesn't cut significantly into her screen time; she appears in numerous flashback sequences as each murder suspect describes their last interaction with her.  Ricardo Cortez, who played a lot of mobbed-up types in his career, is very engaging as Curtis, the smart and dogged gangster who missed his calling -- he would have made a great homicide detective. Pauline Frederick is appropriately starchy as the Andes family matriarch, and Anita Louise is quite convincing as Karen Morley's kid sister.  Louise was still a teenager when she appeared in The Phantom of Crestwood, and her career was a long one, stretching from the silent era into the age of television; she went on to play the mother on the series My Friend Flicka in the 1950s, and was doing guest shots on TV well into the 1970s.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Saturday, May 6, 1972: Return of the Ape Man (1944) / Revenge of the Zombies (1943)

Synopsis: Professors Dexter (Bela Lugosi) and Gilmore (John Carradine) are conducting an experiment in suspended animation.  They bring a drunken vagrant (Ernie Adams) back to their laboratory, inject him with a serum, then freeze him solid for four months.  When they thaw him out, he's as good as new.  He happily takes the five-dollar bill Professor Gilmore gives him, unaware that any time has passed at all.

Professor Gilmore states that this is a triumph for Dexter's theories.  A man in this state of preservation, he says, could survive for a thousand years.  But Dexter is more circumspect.  There is only one way to prove that a man frozen for thousands of years could be revived, he says.  And that's to find someone who's been frozen for thousands of years and revive him!

Nine months later the two scientists are in the arctic, searching fruitlessly for a human body that's been preserved in a glacier.  Gilmore urges Dexter to give up: they've been searching without success for nearly a year.  Gilmore adds that he is a married man, and that his family needs him. Dexter mocks Gilmore's lack of resolve.

At that moment, the men see the outer edge of a glacier shear off from the rest.  They find the body of a man frozen in the ice, and they carve out the block and bring it back to their laboratory.

Using the techniques they've developed, the two scientists thaw out the caveman and restore it to life.  This, Gilmore says, is truly an amazing achievement!  Not yet, Dexter replies.  It will not be a truly amazing achievement until they are able to fully control the caveman.  And the only way to fully control the caveman is to take part of the brain of a modern man and add it to the caveman's brain!

Gilmore scoffs, noting that it would be impossible to find a volunteer for such an experiment.  But Dexter seems unconcerned by this.  Later, at a homecoming celebration for the two scientists, Gilmore notices that his brainy brother Steve isn't around.  Steve, we learn, has left with Dexter.  Gilmore rushes to Dexter's lab, afraid of what he will find....

Comments: Such is my contempt for this thoroughly idiotic film that I'm breaking my normal rule -- I'm refusing to watch it again. That wasn't an easy decision to make.

I like to imagine this blog as a collaborative effort. You and I, dear reader, are supposed to watch the movies together. We're a team, like Starsky and Hutch, or Boris and Natasha, or Abercrombie and Fitch. We whoop it up when things go well and we drown our sorrows when they don't.

 But I'm sorry; I have seen this train wreck a couple of times, and I can't do it again. I am only human, and I have my limits. If it helps, imagine me in the kitchen, messing around with snacks and drinks during the first feature. But I can't bring myself to watch.

This is Monogram at rock-bottom: the cramped, dingy sets, the lazy scriptwriting, the lackluster direction, the phoned-in performances, the surfeit of stock footage: it all congeals into a dismal mess. Both Lugosi and Carradine, who are used to working with substandard material without the slightest hint of embarrassment, seem oddly flat here.  It might have been the script, but then again both have been better with worse scripts. I suspect the real reason was that from top to bottom, at every step of the production, it was clear that no one cared the least about this movie.

That always makes me a little sad, to think that there are movies like that out there: movies that no one ever cared about.  People like to cite movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster or Teenagers From Outer Space as the worst movies ever made; but those movies weren't even close.  Those movies were made by filmmakers who, though inept, were following an inner vision, trying to make something good, and it shines through even the incompetence and lack of money and lack of imagination.

But movies like this are so much worse, because there is no beating heart anywhere inside them. They are written by hacks who had the idea assigned to them and who couldn't care less, directed by hollowed-out men who long ago should have gotten out of the business; everything feels seedy and cheap, and everyone on the set wishes they were somewhere else. If no one involved in making the film gave it a moment's thought or care, why should we?

Revenge of the Zombies

Synopsis: Scott Warrington arrives at the Louisiana mansion of his sister Lila and brother-in-law Dr. Max Von Altermann, a man whom Scott has never met.  Lila has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and Scott, thinking there may be trouble afoot, is traveling with Larry Adams, a private detective he's hired. Wary of Dr. Van Alterman's intentions, they decide to switch roles: Larry will pretend to be Scott and Scott will pretend to be Larry.

Dr. Altermann has secretly harnessed the power to bring the dead back to life as zombie slaves.  His own manservant Lazarus (James Baskett) and a number of the workers on the plantation are undead, though Scott and Larry as well as their comic-relief driver (Manton Morland) are unaware of it.

Soon Dr. Von Altermann meets with a mysterious representative of the Third Reich. Dr. Von Altermann gives a demonstration of zombie obedience to the visiting Nazi, explaining that an army of the undead could never be defeated, since they will continue to function no matter how much damage they sustain in battle. He reveals that he himself killed Lila to use her in his diabolical experiments; to him, Lila was unimportant compared to the Nazi zombie army he's preparing.

But Dr. Altermann's big dreams are threatened by some inconvenient happenings: Lila's body keeps wandering around, and even Scott and Larry have seen it on the move. And the zombies are unexpectedly starting to disobey his orders....

Comments: I wasn't looking forward to sitting through another Monogram mad scientist cheapie with John Carradine hamming it up and Manton Morland doing his bulgy-eyed, feets-don't-fail-me-now schtick. But I have to admit that Revenge of the Zombies is actually kind of fun, partly because it doesn't take itself too seriously (really, it's hard to say the words "Nazi zombie army" without smiling), and partly because of its interesting supporting cast.

Carradine's high-camp mad scientist -- jabbering about indestructible zombie soldiers fighting for the Reich -- is at least entertaining, and if you've seen one Manton Morland performance you've literally seen them all.  And the ostensible leads --Robert Lowery, Gale Storm and Mauritz Hugo are dull as dishwater.

But three performances stand out. James Baskett's Lazarus is eerie and effective due entirely to body language and an electric physical presence; he actually has few lines. His song to summon the zombies is remarkably haunting, more Val Lewton than Monogram. Madame Sul-Te-Wan is great as Beulah, a cackling domestic with a canny knowledge of the occult.  And Sybil Lewis as Rosella is a revelation. Like Baskett she was a star of the black cinema of the time; she is so luminous here that she bursts through her minor role and steals every scene she's in. She almost steals the movie.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Friday, May 5, 1972:The Devil Commands (1940) / The Black Raven (1943)

Synopsis: It is a dark and stormy night at Midland University, and Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) is demonstrating a breakthrough discovery to his colleagues. He has found that human brains emit electromagnetic wave-patterns, each as unique to an individual as fingerprints. Blair has found a way to measure and record these waves. Furthermore, he has learned the wave-pattern of women is much stronger than that of men. To demonstrate this last point he wires his wife Helen up to his electroencephalogram, which features a big diving-helmet type contraption that goes over the head. 

As the scientists watch, they see the needle on the device recording a steady pattern of peaks and valleys, interspersed with small jigs and jags in the needle. These small variations, Blair says, are individual thoughts, and in time he will be able to decode them.

Blair's colleagues shower him with congratulations on his discovery. Helen reminds him that they must pick up the cake for their daughter's homecoming, and Blair, ever the doting husband, hurries to close out his demonstration -- forgetting to shut off the inputs for the machine.

Blair and his wife drive to the bakery to pick up the cake, and we get a strong impression that the two are happy and very much in love.

Unfortunately, in the movies this can only mean one thing, and sure enough, Helen is killed minutes later in a car crash.  Despondent, Blair gets through the funeral, then returns to the lab, hoping to find solace in his work.

To his astonishment, he finds that Helen's unique brain-wave pattern records for a few moments on the machine, which had been left on.

Blair tells his colleagues of this incident, and that he might have stumbled on a means of communicating with the dead. But the colleagues are not only skeptical, but embarrassed that he would entertain such a notion. Blair is angry at their willful stupidity. 

The building's maintenance man, Karl, overhears their exchange, and he later tells Dr. Blair that he knows a psychic who can communicate with the dead -- she is, in fact, helping Karl communicate with his dead mother.  Blair is doubtful, but he accompanies Karl to a seance.

The psychic, Blanche Walters (Anne Revere), once again helps Karl receive a message from his dead mother, but after the seance Blair exposes her as a fraud. Nevertheless she agrees to assist him his experiments when he offers to compensate her.

Blair's idea is to use Mrs. Walters' naturally stronger wave-pattern to establish a link with Helen. When this fails, he decides to add Karl to the circuit, like the amplifying grid in a vacuum tube. 

Alas, poor Karl! An electric charge fries his brain, making him like a shuffling zombie.

Knowing that medical treatment for Karl would lead to questions, and the end to the experiments, Mrs. Walters convinces Blair that they need to immediately decamp to a new location. Soon enough, they have set up shop in a spooky house outside the small town of Barsham Harbor.

But even here they are not allowed to work unmolested. In the two years since Dr. Blair, Walters and Karl arrived, a number of bodies have disappeared from morgues and crypts, and the townspeople are beginning to suspect. The soft-spoken local sheriff (Kenneth MacDonald) tries to question Blair about his experiments, but gets nowhere. 

He convinces Blair's housekeeper, a local woman named Mrs. Marcy (Dorothy Adams) to find out what's in Blair's secret laboratory. But when she unlocks the door and looks inside, she gets a terrible shock -- a half-dozen corpses sitting around a table, each with diving helmet-type contraptions over their heads....

Comments: Wallace MacDonald was one of those Hollywood jacks-of-all-trades who emerged from the silent era, remaking his career less from a desire to expand his horizons than from sheer necessity.  He'd been a silent film actor since 1914, appearing in some notable pictures, including The Primrose Path (1925), opposite Clara Bow; as the title character in the serial Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and as the ill-fated Peter Godolphin in The Sea Hawk (1924).

The silent era ended too abruptly for many actors, who couldn't adapt to the times and were swept out of the business.  But MacDonald turned to writing with some success (his credits included the Gene Autry vehicle The Phantom Empire, 1935), and had even better luck as a producer at Columbia, starting with Parole Racket in 1937, and carrying on through a slew of unspectacular but solid programmers, including The Face Behind the Mask (1941), which has popped up a few times on Horror Incorporated, as well as a cycle of Boris Karloff mad scientist pictures, all of which we've seen late at night on channel 5: The Man They Could Not Hang (1939); The Man With Nine Lives (1940); Before I Hang (1940) ; and tonight's feature, The Devil Commands.

Of the four, this one is by far the best, for a number of reasons.  In a nutshell, this was the only film of the series to be directed by Edward Dmytryk, who manages to imbue the low-budget affair with a keen atmosphere of dread.  The scene in which the soft-spoken Karloff faces off with the soft-spoken sheriff played by Kenneth MacDonald ( a stage name, by the way  - he is no relation to Wallace MacDonald) is memorable because it's played so differently than similar scenes in similar pictures.

The premise of The Devil Commands is no less absurd than those of the other
Karloff films at Columbia, but somehow Dmytryk manages, through small tricks of verisimilitude, to pull it off.  He seems to understand that horror films must remain plausible, even when the premise is unlikely - in fact, it plausibility becomes more important with an unlikely premise, not less important.

And unlike the other Karloff mad scientist pictures at Columbia, this one doesn't actually feature a mad scientist at all.  The grief-stricken Dr. Blair is motivated not by revenge nor bloodlust nor vanity.   He wants, quite simply, to be reunited with someone he has lost, and it is this desire that connects him with the gullible Karl and the cynical Mrs. Walters.  In a sense all three are in the same business, though they are all approaching the afterlife from different angles.  Karl is a wide-eyed believer; Mrs. Walters a crooked seer; and Blair a scientist who believes that his rational approach will make the afterlife logical and accessible to him.  He does learn his lesson, but as is often the case in these sort of movies, he learns it too late.

The Black Raven

Synopsis: Amos Bradford (George Zucco) is the proprietor of an inn in upstate New York, close to the Canadian border.  The inn is called the Black Raven and, we learn, "The Black Raven" is Bradford's underworld handle as well; every criminal seems to know who he is. Bradford is a sort of fixer, who can help wanted men disappear into Canada; but unlike most of his mobbed-up clients, he appears to be an independent player, without loyalty to any particular syndicate.

One dark and stormy night, Bradford receives an unexpected visitor: a man named Whitey, who comes in the door with a gun and a beef against Bradford.  It seems the Black Raven had double-crossed Whitey and sent him to prison; but before Whitey can take his revenge he is overpowered by Bradford's handyman Andy (Glenn Strange). They tie Whitey up in the back room, planning to return him to the authorities and the ten-year-sentence he still has to serve, when another man arrives.  The man asks for help getting across the border and shows Bradford the front page of a New York paper: the man is a fugitive named Mike Bardoni. Bradford asks why a big mob figure like Bardoni would be trying to flee the country, and Bardoni replies that he has fallen out of favor with mob boss Tim Winfield and is now on the run. Bradford convinces him to book a room at the inn, as there can be no crossing the border tonight as long as the storm is raging and the bridges are all underwater.

Soon another visitor arrives: nervous milquetoast Horace Weatherby, like Bardoni, has learned that all the bridge crossings into Canada are washed out in the storm, and he must stay at the Black Raven for the night.  Weatherby carries a satchel that he is unwilling to part with; suspicious, Bardoni "accidentally" knocks it to the floor, where it briefly opens to reveal $50,000 in cash. 

The next visitors are a couple. Lee Winfield is the daughter of mobster Tim Winfield; she and her boyfriend Allen Bentley want to slip across the border to Canada to elope, but like the others they are unable to cross because of the storm and must stay at the Black Raven.  Soon more visitors arrive: Tim Winfield and his goons, who are looking to break up the planned nuptials of Lee and Allen....

Comments: This likable thriller shares a lot of DNA with last weeks' The Mad Monster. Both are PRC productions, both are are directed by Sam Newfield, and both star George Zucco and Glenn Strange.  But in fact the films are quite different in tone. The Mad Monster attempted to ape the classic horror films of Universal.  The Black Raven, by contrast, tries to emulate the hard-bitten crime dramas of Warner Brothers.  In fact, The Black Raven might be considered a low-rent interpolation of Casablanca.

Instead of  a saloon in occupied Morocco, we have an inn near the Canadian border.  Instead of letters of transit that allow travel to the United States via Lisbon, we have the promise of safe passage into Ontario. Instead of Nazi apparatchiks, we have New York mobsters. Instead of Humphrey Bogart as the jaded Rick Blaine, we have George Zucco as the jaded Amos Bradford, a free agent who lives by his own code. And it seems that, like Rick's Cafe Americain, everybody comes to the Black Raven -- at least, everybody connected to Tim Whitfield.

Now, I will concede that I could be dead wrong about this.  I don't know if anyone's ever noticed a resemblance between the two films.  But it did occur to me while I was watching this one, and I think it's certainly possible that the screenwriters lifted elements, either intentionally or subconsciously, from Warner's hit film of the previous year. 

George Zucco really excels as a leading man here; his smooth delivery is reminiscent of George Sanders' debonair character The Falcon (which might have also influenced this picture); Zucco's cultured but slightly sinister demeanor is perfectly suited for his role here.

But aside from Zucco the acting is uniformly bland; the most interesting actor on the roster is Charles Middleton, who plays the Sheriff; he was Ming the Merciless in the final Flash Gordon serial,  Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Glenn Strange does just fine as Bradford's handyman / bodyguard Andy, and while it's clear from this performance that he just isn't an actor, he does well enough for a PRC production, and he probably appreciated not being buried under pounds of makeup for a change. And presumably, he wasn't asked to do much in the way of stunt work.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Saturday, April 29, 1972: The Mad Monster (1942) / Night of Terror (1933)

Synopsis: Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (George Zucco) is working out of a hidden lab in his house in the country. Not long ago he had been a respected college professor, but his unorthodox views made him a laughingstock in the scientific community and he was forced to resign his post at the university.

His beautiful daughter Lenora (Anne Nagel) doesn't understand her father's penchant for secrecy, which extends to his disapproval of her boyfriend Tom Gregory (Tommy Downs), who is, we quickly learn, a big-city reporter with a nose for sensational stories.

Cameron nurses tremendous resentment against his former colleagues who rejected his theories about creating a formula that can short-circuit evolutionary biology and make humans into primitive beasts.  As Cameron works on his formula, he experiments without conscience on simple-minded handyman Petro (Glenn Strange). Before long he has perfected an injection to make Petro into a sort of wolfman that skulks into the countryside and kills innocent people.

When Petro returns from his sojourns, he reverts to his human state and reports to Dr. Cameron that he has had strange nightmares of stalking and killing innocent people.  As the death toll mounts, the simple country folk start sending hunting parties out to find the monster that is causing the trouble.  Meanwhile, Tom Gregory infiltrates the group in hopes of getting a good story.

Dr. Cameron decides to inject Petro with the formula in order to convince his former colleagues that his theories were right after all, and then murder them by unleashing the beast they were never able to believe he could create. But Dr. Cameron discovers that the monster is gradually slipping out of  his control....

  Comments: The success enjoyed by Universal during its golden age of horror wasn't lost on other studios, so it's a bit surprising that Uni's near-monopoly on the genre wasn't seriously challenged by its rivals.  Columbia made some half-hearted attempts to get in on the act late in the 30s, its most successful result being Lew Landers' Return of the Vampire, released as the curtain was ringing down on the salad days of the horror genre.  Tonight we get another film that tries to capture the look and feel of a Universal picture, but it isn't nearly as successful.

The Mad Monster sports a title that evokes a couple of bottom-drawer Universal programmers (Man Made Monster and The Mad Ghoul) which is only appropriate -- being that this is a PRC production, bottom-drawer is about all we can expect.  The lackluster script includes a mad scientist who has been ostracized by his peers at the university. Apparently his ideas about turning people into werewolves hasn't gone over so well with the other members of the faculty. Go figure!

The scientist (who like any good mad scientist has decamped with his beautiful daughter to an old house in the country with a makeshift lab tucked away in a secret room) has some serious revenge issues, and the only thing that keeps him going is the satisfaction he'll get from proving to his former colleagues that his theories of turning people into werewolves isn't crazy after all.  Once he proves it, of course, he'll have his lab-created werewolf tear the scoffing scientists limb from limb.  Schadenfreude is easy to understand, but a fella can go overboard. It never seems to occur to him that the police might take notice if all the scientists' enemies are conveniently killed by wild animals within days of one another.

The werewolf, once unleashed, has a habit of wandering off and killing random people, and now a posse of country folk are combing the woods for it. 

The simpleton is played by Glenn Strange, and we get an opportunity here to seem him sans makeup.  He is a hulking guy, and it's easy to see why he was picked to play Frankenstein's monster in that franchise's last outings.  But as the simpleton he unwisely decides to channel Lon Chaney's performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men, which gave me the uncomfortable feeling that the role had been written with Chaney in mind.  A Zucco-Chaney pairing would have been a good idea for PRC, though no doubt out of the little studio's budget; Chaney by this time was being groomed as a headlining horror star on his own, and wouldn't have been available.

The problem isn't with Glenn Strange, though, nor with George Zucco, who gives it his all (the man never disappoints); the greatest problem lies, as it does in most bad movies, in the script. Nothing is well thought out here.  Characters are stock, motivations are cliched, conflicts are unconvincing, pathos is manipulated; overall, we feel we've seen this movie a dozen times before, but done better, with better writing and acting.

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: Just a few nights ago -- Halloween night, as it happened -- my ten-year-old daughter and I settled in to watch a classic horror film.  We picked Todd Browning's Dracula (1931).  This was not the first Lugosi opus my daughter had seen (we'd already seen Return of the Vampire, and had watched The Devil Bat a few weeks earlier) and after the movie was over she told me that the two historical figures she'd most like to meet are Leonardo Da Vinci and Bela Lugosi.  I was really pleased that she said this -- not just because it was an indication that my peculiar taste in cinema is rubbing off on her, but also because I imagined the much-maligned Lugosi would have been heartened to hear such a remark.

Night of Terror really plays up the horror elements in its promotional materials but downplays them once the movie starts, going for an atmosphere of zany mystery: a lot of people enter and exit in quick succession, giving the impression that a lot is going on even when little is; the principle players are never in real danger and The Maniac, who is billed as a terrible threat to everyone's safety, seems far too goofy and random a killer to be frightening.   

This was an unfortunate movie for Lugosi because in spite of his top billing, the character he plays is pretty far removed from the action, and simply functions as a red herring (a role he played in many pictures, including the serial The Whispering Shadow, filmed the same year).

Lugosi's career peaked with Dracula, his first screen role, and it was pretty much downhill from there.  His disappointing career is often blamed on his limitations as an actor: his thick accent, his hammy delivery, and so on.  But oddly, whenever Lugosi headlined a movie, it seemed to make at least a modest profit; and it has always seemed to me that Lugosi's performance at the box office always met, and often exceeded, the expectations of the studios. In spite of that, studios were strangely wary of Lugosi, and he was often deemed as less than bankable no matter how much evidence accumulated to the contrary.

This film has Wallace Ford turning up as a newspaperman, the sort of character who serves as both protagonist and comic relief at the same time.  Newspaper reporters turned up a lot in horror films in this era (we have one in our first feature The Mad Monster), as they were able to antagonize both the country-club swells who were unable to perceive the threats against them, and the hidebound police detectives who couldn't see their noses in front of their faces. 

Sally Blane is just fine as the female lead in this picture. She didn't have many leading roles after this, but she acquits herself well here and is a believable love interest both for Arthur Rinehart and the brash newspaper reporte Tom Hartley.  That she can seem interested in Hartley, even though he's played by Wallace Ford, is a bravura performance by itself.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Saturday, April 22, 1972: Torture Ship (1939) / The Devil Bat (1940)

Synopsis: A group of criminals have been lured onto a steamship by the promise of an ocean cruise, but they quickly discover they are the prisoners of mad scientist Dr. Herbert Stander (Irving Pichel), and his gang of thuggish orderlies, who uses them one by one as guinea pigs in his medical experiments.  Those who try to hatch a plot to take over the ship quickly find their every movement is being tracked; an attempt to bribe the captain into helping the prisoners also fails.

Young Joan is among the prisoners, but unlike the others she is actually innocent. She had been secretary to Mary, a serial husband-poisoner and insurance fraud specialist. Mary tries to kill Joan after she decides that her erstwhile assistant has betrayed her. 

This attracts the attention of Bob, a pleasant galoot who is Dr. Stander's nephew, and who serves as an officer on the steamship.  Bob doesn't seem very bright; he hasn't really picked up on Dr. Stander's scheme. He goes to Stander, lobbying for Joan's protection, but his pleas fall on deaf ears.  Bob ends up hiding Joan in his stateroom.

Meanwhile, the prisoners, with little to do but plot an escape, manage to incapacitate Dr. Stander and take a number of people on board hostage, including Joan.  Desperate to free her, Bob decides to impersonate Dr. Stander over the ship's intercom and convince them that the mad scientist is still in control....

Comments: As often happens with films that have fallen into the public domain, copies of this early PRC offering are cheap and plentiful, but the quality of the source material tends to be poor. Mill Creek issued Torture Ship on one of its cheapo 50-movie DVD packs, and what you get is apparently derived from a muddy and hacked-up 16mm TV print.  In fact, after the opening credits, the first eight minutes of the film are missing; the first scene we see is the criminals plotting to escape from their cabin, their conversation overheard by the listening device planted by Dr. Stander.  For those unfortunates who possess the Mill Creek set, the film starts somewhat abruptly, and it takes a little effort to figure out who's who and what the central conflict is.

To be honest, it doesn't much matter. Torture Ship is a pretty standard Mad Scientist picture.  The only things that set it apart is the fact that it's set at sea, and that it sports an interesting cast for the time.  The mad scientist is Irving Pichel, whom you might remember as Sandor from Dracula's Daughter. He was also a director, known for The Most Dangerous Game (1933) and Destination Moon (1950). Skelton Knaggs, the homely character actor who would go on to be part of Val Lewton's repertory company, plays one of the motley gangsters.  Lyle Talbot is ostensibly the lead; he was the closest thing PRC had to a real leading-man type. Julie Bishop had played Joan Alison in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) and she is a welcome presence here.

The screenplay is loosely based on "A Thousand Deaths", notable only as Jack London's first published short story. Like much of London's early work it's science fiction, but it also has strangely Freudian overtones (the protagonist is a man being repeatedly killed and brought back to life by his mad scientist father; in the end the hero manages to turn the tables and kill him).  In extracting the eccentric ideas from the story the screenwriters wound up also removing anything that made the story interesting and memorable. But that sort of thing happens a lot in the film business.

 The Devil Bat

Synopsis: Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) is a brilliant chemist who works for a cosmetics company. Years ago the company had given him a choice: he could be compensated with profit-sharing or with a straight salary.  He chose the latter.  Unfortunately for him, the company went on to become a huge player in the cosmetics industry, and it's clear that the percentage deal would have made him extremely wealthy. As it is, he's well-compensated, but he missed out on a fortune that he himself helped to build. The Heath family, which owns the company, is aware of how much they owe Dr. Carruthers.  As far as they know, he's as happy as a clam in his laboratory.

The Heath family decides to throw a party in Dr. Carruthers' honor - and they also secretly plan to award him a bonus check of $5,000.  But the good doctor is late to his own party.  He's busy working.  You see, behind a secret passage in his laboratory is another lab -- and in this one he is breeding giant carnivorous bats!  And that's not all -- he has created a scent that drives the bats wild with rage. 

After Carruthers fails to show up at his own party, young Roy Heath (John Ellis) decides to drop by and give Dr. Carruthers the check in person. When he finds Carruthers the scientist seems delighted by the check, and he gives Roy something in return - a bottle of experimental shaving lotion.  "Be sure to put some on the tender part of the neck," Carruthers advises, and Roy, gamely, does so.  But he doesn't walk more than fifty or so yard out in the open before a giant bat swoops out of the sky, killing him.

At the offices of the Chicago Daily Register, smart-alec reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O'Brien)  is sent out to cover the story. Chief Wilkins of the Heathville police tells Layton that Roy was attacked by some kind of animal; moreover, there were hairs found on the victim that seemed to be those of a mouse.  Layton wonders if the hairs might be from a bat -- as bats and mice are quite similar -- and asks if he can "do some sleuthing around" on the case, and the police chief says it's fine by him.

At the Heath estate, Johnny interviews Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), and it's clear that a mutual attraction is brewing. Dr. Carruthers agrees that Roy was attacked by an animal, and that night Layton and his sidekick / photographer "One-Shot" McGuire (Donald Kerr)  wait out at the edge of the Heath grounds hoping the creature will show up.  Mary comes out to keep Layton company, and before long they are joined by Heath sibling Tommy (Alan Baldwin), who's just been to visit Dr. Carruthers and who has also received a bottle of the special shaving lotion. After Tommy scoffs at the idea of an animal killing Roy, he strides off toward the mansion.  But soon the others hear him calling for help -- and arrive just in time to see Tommy attacked by a giant bat!

Now it's a big story --  the Daily Register is running banner headlines about the "Devil Bat" -- but Layton's editor isn't satisfied.  They need a picture of the bat, and Layton gets an idea: One-Shot can get the local taxidermist to create a fake Devil Bat, take a picture of it, and fool the editor.  Unfortunately, a "Made In Japan"  tag gives away the ruse, and both Layton and One-Shot are fired.  Now they have two tasks: find out the truth about the Devil Bat, and find a way to get their old jobs back....

Comments: Our second feature is another PRC offering, but more successful than the first; in fact, The Devil Bat was the most profitable film PRC ever made. It might also be the most fun; there's something refreshing about a mad scientist who isn't jabbering on, trying to justify his actions or elicit the sympathy of the audience.  There's a little bit of hand-waving toward a motive -- Dr. Carruthers had cashed out his stock in the cosmetics company he works for before it became a big player and now feels cheated -- but the truth is the guy's just crazy, gleefully rubbing his hands together and cackling darkly as only Bela Lugosi can.  Say what you want about this picture, Bela does not disappoint.

Some murderers might use a gun or a knife to do their work, but Carruthers is creative if nothing else: he breeds giant carnivorous bats, trains them to home in on  his experimental shaving lotion, then hands out bottles of the lotion to his victims. "Be sure to put some on the tender part of the neck," he keeps urging people. The moment his belotioned victim walks outside, one of his giant bats swoop down and goes for the jugular! 

Dr. Phibes couldn't come up with a zanier method of execution, and you really find yourself rooting for Carruthers, who is altogether more interesting than everyone around him. He even gets some funny lines.  When first victim Roy Heath stops by to drop off a bonus check of $5,000 (about $85,000 in today's money) Carruthers gets him to put some of the experimental lotion on his neck.  As he leaves, Roy tosses off a cheerful, "Goodnight, doc!".

"Goodbye, Roy", Carruthers deadpans. Ha! We never even find out if he cashed the check.

Later, when Tommy Heath drops by and tries out the lotion, he marvels at how soothing it is. "I don't think you'll ever use anything else!" Dr. Carruthers says craftily. What a sense of humor this guy has! Why can't they write villains like this nowadays?

Lugosi isn't well-served, though,  by a dull-as-dishwater cast. Dave O'Brien's smirking reporter character was a cliche even in 1940; he makes Doctor X's Lee Tracy seem like Lawrence Olivier by comparison. Donald Kerr's "One-Shot" Maguire is Odious Comic Relief of the worst kind; even worse is that fact that we're supposed to believe that pretty French maid Maxine (Yolanda Donlan) finds him attractive (look, we get that she's part of the servant class, but -- yeesh! -- she must have some standards). Arthur Q. Bryan plays the usual grating city editor part (Heath Cosmetics, he explains to the dim-witted reporter, "makes all that goo that the women put on their faces!". Besides Lugosi himself, the only real standout in the cast is Suzanne Kaaren, who doesn't get an opportunity to dance or show off her spectacular legs, but she is beautiful and classy, really too good to mix with the knuckleheads from the Chicago Register. But really, who isn't?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Saturday, April 15, 1972: Dr. X (1932) / The Man Who Returned To Life (1942)

Synopsis: A vicious serial killer is on the loose in New York, a cannibal who only strikes when the Moon is full. The police realize that all of the murders are centered around the medical academy run by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). The method of killing is strangulation, the bodies mutilated afterward with a unique type of scalpel only used at the medical academy. The cops recruit Dr. Xavier to help find which of the four eccentric surgeons in his employ might be the murderer.

As it turns out, all four of the doctors make pretty good suspects.  We have the sour Dr. Wells, who has studied the practices of cannibals; Dr Duke, whom we may or may not rule out because he is in a wheelchair but who is kind of a jerk anyway; Dr. Rowitz, a researcher of a more lyrical bent, though still a weirdo; and Dr. Haines, who seems to be hiding a number of secrets, including a penchant for lad magazines.  Oh, and he might have taken a nibble or two of human flesh in his day.

Meanwhile, newspaper reporter Lee Taylor  (Lee Tracy) is trying to scoop the competition in getting the facts of the case, and he isn't above posing as a corpse in the city morgue to get access.  Along the way he falls for Dr. Xavier's daughter Joanne (Fay Wray).  But as Dr. Xavier hatches a plan to catch the man dubbed the "Moon Killer" by the papers, Lee also has to face the possibility that the killer may be none other than Dr. Xavier himself...

Comments: Like Night of Terror, the horror elements of this First National picture are leavened by a goofball newspaper reporter as protagonist. This device allows the lead character to provide his own comic relief, thus keeping the audience from taking things too seriously (interestingly, the belated - and much cheaper - sequel Return of Dr. X would also employ a stumble-bum reporter as its lead character).

What sets Dr. X apart from those other two films is its relatively lavish production values. Both Night of Terror and Return of Dr. X were unassuming programmers. Only Dr. X comes across as an "A" picture, something the studio would be proud to roll out to the public.

The film's air of respectability was probably helped by the fact that it was based on a stage play, and director Michael Curtiz does a good job keeping it from looking stagebound. The film opens on a fog-shrouded waterfront set, and both the Xavier lab complex and the Xavier household sets are extremely large and detailed. 

The film stars Lee Tracy and Fay Wray, two stars who had similar career trajectories: they were big in the early 1930s, but both quickly faded from prominence. Wray is still remembered today for her turn in Merriam C. Cooper's 1933 smash King Kong; Tracy has been largely forgotten. The title role is played by Lionel Atwill, at the top of his game as the avuncular head of the research institute that may be harboring a killer. Atwill's performance is often criticized as overly plummy, but I think he did about as well as he could with it; after all, Dr. Xavier himself is a red herring character, and we know that he must be at least a little nutty -- after all, three out of the four researchers on his payroll have experimented with cannabilism. What are the odds?

The Man Who Returned To Life

Synopsis: It's October of 1941, and George Bishop (John Howard) has a great life.  He has a beautiful wife and a delightful five-year-old daughter and a loyal dog.   He just got a big promotion at work.  He owns a nice-looking house with a white picket fence in sunny Ridgewood, California.  Everything in George's life is just swell -- and in the movies, that can mean only one thing.

Sure enough, as George leafs through the morning paper, he finds a news item that shocks him to his core: a jury in Blissville, Maryland has convicted a man named Clyde Beebe of the murder of David Jameson eight years earlier, and Beebe has been sentenced to hang for the crime.

"Clyde Beebe to hang!" George gasps. "For murdering me?"

Bishop hastily makes plans to leave town, mumbling to his wife that there is "something I need to take care of". 

Flashback to 1933.  Bishop is living in Blissville, Maryland under the name of David Jameson.  He's been in the community for five years, but because this is a small town, he's still a newcomer in their eyes.  He works at the local bank and has nearly paid off the loan on a farmhouse he's bought in the area. 

Jameson is sweet on pretty Daphne Turner (Marcella Martin), but she is being pursued aggressively by local troublemaker Clyde Beebe (Paul Guilfoyle). Meanwhile, Jameson himself is being ruthlessly pursued by Clyde's sister Beth Beebe (Ruth Ford).  Some friendly locals advise Jameson to steer clear of the ne'er-do-well Beebes, and Jameson agrees, but in a town this size it's easier said than done.

Beth has been telling everyone in town that she and Jameson are an item, and she goes so far as to invite herself to social events with him.  One night she brings up the M-word, and Jameson is shocked and appalled, and his rejection sends Beth running away in tears.  Clyde Beebe, hearing about the insult to his sister, confronts Jameson and attacks him with a knife.  Jameson isn't badly wounded, but it's clear that the Beebes will be trouble for the foreseeable future.

Jameson and Daphne Turner begin to grow closer.  Daphne has been helping sketch designs for improving the farmhouse, and as they talk excitedly about what the house needs they realize they are making future plans together.  Jameson proposes to her, and she accepts.  When Beth hears the news she is devastated, unable to leave her room for days. 

One afternoon Jameson is walking down Blissville's main street when Beth Beebe pulls up in a car.  She seems very calm and even cheerful, congratulating Jameson on his wedding plans and offering him a lift.  Jameson, relieved that Beth is taking it so well, accepts -- but once they are underway he discovers that she has a sinister plan.  She has already told everyone she knows that the two of them have eloped, and she has arranged for a witness and a justice of the peace to marry them at the Beebe place.  Jameson makes clear he wants no part of it, but Beth will not be deterred -- she is clearly off her rocker.  The car is now hurtling along the highway at 70 miles an hour, so Jameson can't jump out.  Fighting Beth for the wheel, the car goes off the road and Beth is killed in the resulting crash. 

Jameson is arrested, and charged with murder.  Everyone in town seems to think he is guilty; and when the charge is reduced to manslaughter,  Clyde Beebe rounds up a posse.  Released on bail, Jameson returns to the farmhouse, but through the darkened front window he can see that someone's rigged a shotgun to kill the first person who walks in through the door....

Comments: 1942 was a busy year for director Lew Landers. He was averaging a picture a month for Columbia in those days, including this little programmer. The Man Who Returned To Life clocks in at just over 60 minutes, but spends so much time setting up its central conflict that it races around in its last few minutes trying to tie up loose ends.

The movie sports a premise that's intriguing, but difficult to execute.  From the outset we're treated to hefty plot contrivances and bouts of extremely unlikely behavior from the characters.  For example, why would a newspaper in California report the pending execution of a murderer in Maryland?  If the case were so sensational that it would warrant nationwide press coverage, wouldn't he have heard of it before now?

Why would anyone believe that Jameson murdered Beth?  What was the alleged motive? On what basis would the prosecutor charge him with manslaughter, let alone murder? Why would Jameson, upon discovering Clyde Beebe's plot to kill him, jump on a freight train and travel to California as a hobo, abandoning his property and fiance? 

And really, why should Jameson feel so much guilt about Clyde Beebe being charged for his murder in the first place?  Granted, Beebe didn't succeed in committing the crime.  But he fully intended to succeed, thought he had succeeded, and in fact did kill someone  - the hobo from the railroad camp (amusingly, after Jameson exonerates Beebe for his own murder, one of the swirling headlines in the final moments indicates that Beebe was charged with the murder of the hobo - a crime for which he will presumably hang).

Interestingly, it's never clear to us how much -- if anything -- Jameson's wife Jane knows about his past.  After reading the newspaper headline he tells her that there is "something I need to take care of".  We see stock footage of a commercial airliner flying cross-country (an extremely expensive way to travel in those days, but handy if you're racing to stop an unjust execution).  After Beebe is cleared of the crime, we get a series of swirling headlines, indicating that Jameson has been cleared of the manslaughter charge.  More stock footage of an airplane flight follows, and an image of a telegram, telling his wife he's on his way back.  Then he is reunited with his loving family.  Is he still George Bishop, or has he reverted to David Jameson?  Did he tell his wife who he really is, or did she know all along that he was a fugitive?  We're never told.

John Howard makes Jameson / Bishop a likable and sympathetic fellow, and Lucille Fairbanks makes a fetching Jane, though she is hampered, as many women of the time were, by a paper-thin characterization.  She is a Saintly Wife and that's all we get to see of her.

But by far the most interesting character is the delusional Beth Beebe, played with a convincing aura of nuttiness by Ruth Ford.  Ford conveys slightly off-kilter with tremendous skill.  She never overdoes it, which somehow makes her all the more frightening. The scene where she's about to crash the car is the highlight of the movie; with nothing more than a facial expression we buy completely that Beth has lost her marbles and feels she has absolutely nothing to lose.  It's a splendid and understated performance.