Thursday, March 27, 2014

Saturday, February 5, 1972: The Beast With 5 Fingers (1947) / The Human Monster (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Comments: You could count on one hand (ha ha, get it?) the number of horror films Warner made in the 1940s, and even in those films the studio's embarrassment at the genre is obvious.  The first thing you need to know about The Beast With 5 Fingers is that it does everything to convince you that it isn't really a horror movie at all. It's character-driven!  There's a romance!  There's a cynical, self-deprecating lead character!  The horror elements are explained away in the last reel!

The embarrassment is evident from the first moments of the film, when a title card is inserted to reassure us that we shouldn't take any of this crawling-hand stuff seriously:

It's likely that Warner was envious (as many other studios were at the time)  of the films of Val Lewton, whose horror outings at RKO were high-brow and respectable, keeping the audience guessing as to whether the events they were seeing were supernatural or psychological in origin (Lewton's films made money, too, which never hurts).  In any case, The Beast With 5 Fingers had clearly been put into production with the idea of being something of a hybrid, carefully designed to please both horror fans and general audiences.  Predictably, it is the movie's fatal flaw.

That you could specifically tailor a genre film to appeal to the sensibilities of the masses is an idea that's nearly impossible to kill, kind of like a crawling, disembodied hand.  Studios invariably try it, and they invariably fail.  They forget that if nothing else, movies must be true to themselves. 

The movie fails with horror fans because the promise of a crawling hand isn't kept, and the ending comes across as something of a cheat.  it fails with mainstream audiences because -- well, because there's a hand crawling around killing people.  Why didn't the film just go the full monty and give us a straight-no-chaser horror film? 

After all, the best genre films have no trouble appealing to mainstream audiences: there was no calculation or compromise that made The Magnificent Seven a mainstream hit. It was simply a great movie and audiences responded to that. The fact that it happened to be a western didn't matter.  Similarly, Star Wars appealed to many moviegoers who wouldn't be caught dead buying a ticket to a science fiction movie.  The Great Escape brought in audiences who weren't necessarily interested in war movies, and Lewton's Cat People was such a stylish and superior movie that audience flocked to it with nary a qualm about going to see -- you know -- a horror film.

For all its flaws, this one is well-cast, with Robert Alda making a solid leading man.  As I've mentioned before, J. Carrol Naish is one of my favorite actors from this era, and he does a fine job as the skeptical police commisario. Andrea King gives a winning performance as Julie.  Victor Francen is also quite convincing as the embittered Francis Ingraham, and Peter Lorre is appropriately nutty in what was his last film for Warner Brothers.

The Human Monster

Synopsis: At Scotland Yard, a group of Detectives Inspector are being chewed out by their superior.  Five bodies have been pulled from the Thames in recent months, and while they are clearly meant to look like suicides, no one doubts they are murders.  The Yard is no closer to an arrest than it was at the beginning, and the press is having a field day playing up the ineptitude of the police.  Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) is told to redouble his efforts to solve the crimes - or else.  He is instructed to take charge of a prisoner who being returned to London from the United States, a career criminal named Fred Grogan (Alexander Field). Grogan is being accompanied by a Chicago police detective named O'Reilly (Edmon Ryan).   Holt's captain tells him that the Americans want O'Reilly to shadow a British detective in order to learn the methods of the Yard.  "I'll have him shadow you," the captain tells Holt contemptuously.  "That way he won't learn anything."

Meanwhile, insurance agent and London philanthropist Dr. Feodor Orloff (Bela Lugosi) makes a loan to Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring), a formerly wealthy man who has had a run of bad luck. Orloff suggests that Stuart sign over his life insurance policy to him as collateral, and Stuart agrees. Orloff talks about his charity work at a house for the blind, and he tells Stuart to visit the house the following evening. As he talks to Stuart, he types out a short note on a Braille typewriter, wraps the note around a coin, and throws it out onto the street, where a blind street violinist picks it up and carries it away.

Later , Holt meets O'Reilly and his prisoner at the railway station, and they head back to Scotland Yard.  Once Grogan is taken away to a holding cell, O'Reilly pulls out a blackjack and recommends the Chicago way of getting information from a suspect: a good old-fashioned beat down.  But Holt has other plans. A drunk is put in to the cell with Grogan, and Grogan takes a great interest in the newspaper the drunk has in his coat pocket.  Later we learn that the drunk was an undercover policeman placed by Holt.  Grogan found a classified ad in the newspaper that had been meant for him alone -- an ad written in a simple code that directed him to Orloff.

The next evening, Stuart turns up at the home for the blind. As he enters, a furtive resident pushes a Braille note into his hand.  Confused, Stuart puts the note into his pocket.   He is greeted by Orloff, who seems shocked when Stuart mentions he has a daughter --  Orloff thought he had no living relations. Stuart's tour ends abruptly when Orloff leads him to a room where Jake, a Rondo Hatton-esque grotesque, is waiting for him.

Before long Stuart's body is fished out of the river. On a hunch Holt has the water in the man's lungs tested; it turns out that Stuart was drowned in tap water, not the muddy water of the Thames. And the Braille note in Stuart's pocket reads simply "MURDER".  Based on this, Holt begins to suspect that Dr. Orloff and the home for the blind are involved, somehow, with the crimes....

Comments: One way I manage to bore people is to jabber away on the subject of curated content.  It's kind of an old-fashioned idea, really. The freedom we have today to  pick and choose what we want to watch, when we want to watch it, is pretty awesome. Sitting here at my dining room table I could opt to view -- at the push of a button --  nearly any movie or TV show I wanted to see.

But that freedom comes with a price. Your Netflix queue can't surprise you; it can't start playing a movie on its own that you might fall in love with, one that you might remember fondly, or one that you might want to learn more about. Serendipity has become a rare thing. It used to happen all the time on broadcast television. And one really good thing about working on the Horror Incorporated Project is seeing movies that I probably would never have gotten around to seeing, if I'd been left to my own devices. 

In a way, I really am like a viewer of the show, ca. 1972.  I've made the same bargain that the original Horror Incorporated audience made: show up Saturday night at midnight, and they'll show you a movie.  It might be a clunker, but then again, it might be great.  Why not tune in and see?

Now to me, that's a bargain I can live with. And that bargain pays off handsomely with movies like The Human Monster.  I can't imagine going out of my way to see another of Lugosi's starring turns in a Monogram production.  But whaddya know, this one actually delivers the goods.

Credit should probably go to the source material. This is an adaptation of the Edgar Wallace thriller The Dark Eyes Of London and it contains the usual improbable plot twists and mildly eccentric characterizations of Wallace's popular crime novels.

Structurally, the movie is a funny mix.  It's essentially a horror movie with a police procedural and a light buddy cop flick dropped in the middle. O'Reilly, the American detective, serves as the sidekick to Detective Inspector Holt, and as in many Wallace stories his main function is comic relief (there's a running gag where Holt introduces O'Reilly as "Lieutenant O'Reilly" -- using the American pronunciation of "lieutenant", --  and O'Reilly corrects him by using the British pronunciation). The American detective also marvels at the presence of female police officers, though he is disappointed to learn that they are on hand to enforce "laws pertaining to morality".  O'Reilly and the audience are clearly meant to be impressed by the modern methods employed by Scotland Yard, and we see more forensic work than we normally do in a film of this era.

The Scotland Yard scenes don't really mesh with Orloff's scenes with potential victims, or with the scenes at the decidedly gothic home for the blind; those are more closely aligned with the conventional horror tropes of the time, right down to the less-than-convincing motivations of the villain (for example, why would Orloff go ahead with his plan to kill Stuart, even after he knows a) that Stuart has a daughter who is coming to town, and b) Holt is nosing around his company's books, having figured out that the insurance payouts for Thames drowning victims suspiciously route back to him?)

All the same it's moderately entertaining stuff, and has a plot twist -- involving a dual role for Lugosi --  that works quite well but which I won't give away here. For the most part Lugosi turns in what I would call a standard performance, somewhat lacking in subtlety.  He tries to be scary by pitching his voice to a lower register and tilting his head forward.  He seems to resort to this when he's unsure of what the material demands, and it makes me think that Lugosi would have been more effective if he'd worked with better directors.  Nevertheless, he is a more threatening presence than most actors of his day and he has more to do in this film than he did in most of his roles from this era. His scenes with Hugh Williams are pretty good and the Hughes / Ryan buddy cop interplay is fun to watch as well.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Saturday, January 26, 1972: The Ape (1940) / The Woman Who Came Back (1945)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments: While watching The Ape for the second time I found myself thinking not about the relative merits of this Monogram cheapie (which aren't significant) but about how many movies like this that were made circa 1940.  For the sake of convenience let's call this horror sub-genre "mad scientist pictures"*. They follow a fairly rigid formula: a scientist is conducting unorthodox research that requires breaking one or more societal taboos (this might involve grave-robbing or otherwise desecrating the dead, or experimenting on unsuspecting innocents). How he reaches this decision varies.  He might be overly ambitious.  He might simply be a sociopath.  Or he might be a moral man turned bad by a tragedy or a perceived injustice.  In any case, the scientist justifies his actions by imagining that his bid to expand the frontiers of knowledge is worth the moral crimes he is committing. In the end the scientist receives a terrible comeuppance for these transgressions. Karloff alone did a slew of them for Columbia: The Man With Nine Lives (1940), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), Before I Hang (1940),  Black Friday (1940) , and The Devil Commands (1941). Lugosi did a number as well for the poverty-row studios: The Devil Bat (1940),  The Ape Man, (1943) The Return of the Ape Man (1945), Voodoo Man (1944) . And there were many others ground out with other actors in the lead role, such as Face of Marble (1946)  and The Lady and the Monster (1944).
*I'm sure film historians have written more extensively about this sub-genre, and probably have a snappier name for it, but I have yet to read about it in any detail.

These days we tend to think of medical research as a team effort: a broad network of academic, foundation and corporate sponsors combine to fund research that is open, collaborative and peer-reviewed.  But in these movies science is depicted as something that occurs behind closed doors. The scientists in these films work alone, in drafty castles or dank basements or makeshift labs, without remuneration.  They jealously guard their privacy. They don't seek incremental discoveries that others can build upon.  Rather, they are looking for the big score: a cure for a disease, or for death itself. 

Frankenstein is the obvious precursor to these films, and some relatively big-budget productions of the 1930s toyed with the theme as well (e.g. The Invisible Ray). Then suddenly, for a few years starting around 1939, there was a torrent of mad scientist pictures.  

I'm not sure why. There don't seem to be any real breakout hits among these movies, and none of them can be said to have been  particularly influential.  Rather, the movies seem to rely on the lead actor's star power to draw audiences. They are quite low-budget, which helps ensure profitability; and they are very formulaic, which allows the scribblers at Monogram and PRC to grind them out quickly without making too much of a hash of things.

The Ape is a textbook example of this subgenre. Curt Siodmak co-wrote the script (he's credited as "Kurt Siodmak" here), and unsurprisingly this movie prominently features spinal fluid, one of Siodmak's pet obsessions. It has the generally dingy look we expect from Monogram, as well as its share of Monogram idiocies: we discover that Dr. Adrian is wearing the "skin" of the dead ape, but in fact it looks like a full-blown ape costume -- which is of course exactly what it was from the beginning. The ape's behavior is, moreover, entirely un-ape-like.  The movie does correctly point out that apes are frugivorous, but someone should have told Siodmak that apes are not nocturnal, not particularly aggressive, and do not have a tendency to break into people's houses and smash things.

The Woman Who Came Back

Synopsis: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly)  is returning to her New England hometown of Eben Rock, Massachusetts after spending several years away.  The bus she is riding on stops along the road to pick up an elderly woman (Elspeth Dudgeon) who has flagged the driver down.  It is late at night and the driver is reluctant to take the woman on, and refuses outright to take the woman's dog.  The old woman agrees to leave the dog on the side of the road and boards the bus.

The woman sits by Lorna, and seems to know her by name.  She says that Lorna is the descendent of Elijah Webster, a judge who 300 years ago sentenced a number of witches in the town to be burned at the stake.  She tells Lorna that she herself is Jezebel Trister, a 300 year old witch who had been condemned by Judge Webster, which greatly startles and alarms Lorna. Almost immediately, the bus plunges off a steep embankment into a lake.

In  the town, Lorna stumbles into the local tavern, and it's clear that no one in the place had expected her to arrive, including her ex-fiancee, local doctor Matt Adams (John Loder).  When Lorna tells of the bus accident, the authorities go out to the lake.  They pull a number of bodies from the water; but Lorna is the only survivor.  Moreover, none of the bodies matches the description of the old woman Lorna describes.

As the local physician, Matt nurses Lorna back to health.  He is pleased to see her, even though she had stood him up at the altar years before.  The other townspeople are not so forgiving, particularly Ruth Gibson (Ruth Ford) and Rev. Stevens (Otto Kruger).  They resent what she had done to Matt, and remember that bad luck always seemed to follow Lorna, that everything she touched seemed cursed.  The bus accident is only the latest proof of this: how is it possible that she walked away without a scratch, when everyone else was killed?  

Matt gives Lorna a black shawl that she'd had with her after the accident.  Lorna is alarmed -- she knows it isn't hers, but Jezebel Trister's.  Matt says that can't be possible.  Lorna, he says, must have imagined meeting Jezebel Trister, since no old woman was found among the bus accident casualties.  Uncertain, Lorna tries on the shawl after Matt leaves, but when she looks in the mirror, she sees the face of Jezebel Trister appear over her own.

Lorna tries to resume a normal life, but she finds it difficult.  She is staying at Ruth's tavern, and Ruth reveals to her that she herself has been carrying a torch for Matt, and this seems to be fueling at least some of Ruth's resentment.  When Lorna feeds the fish belonging to Ruth's daughter, the fish almost immediately die.  She learns that she fed them rat poison by mistake.  And she finds herself being followed by a sinister-looking dog, the same dog that had accompanied Jezebel Trister....

Comments: We were just talking about one horror sub-genre (mad scientist pictures) and here comes another one: the Val Lewton knockoff, which flourished briefly in the mid 1940s.  We've seen a number of them on Horror Incorporated, including Soul of a Monster, The Beast With 5 Fingers and She-Wolf of London.  Lewton knockoffs try to emulate the moody and ethereal films that Val Lewton produced for RKO.  Lewton's films were understated, keeping the horror elements in the background, and part of the mystery was often whether the supernatural events were real, or merely psychological.  The mystery was heightened by the dreamlike narrative and the slightly surreal camera work.  And these kind of movies are relatively cheap to make, as they require very little in the way of special effects.

Unfortunately, while it was fairly easy to imitate Lewton's films, it was nearly impossible to equal them.  There's a subtlety and sophistication about them that was impossible to copy.
That's exactly the case with The Woman Who Came Back.  It just can't stack up to the movies Val Lewton made; but the good news is, it doesn't have to.  Taken on its own terms, The Woman Who Came Back is a perfectly decent little thriller. 

The movie gets out of the gate quickly, with the old woman on the bus freaking Lorna out moments before the accident that kills nearly everyone on board.  Because he is a doctor, Matt becomes the default 20th-century man of reason, telling Lorna that witchcraft and the supernatural were simply the products of ignorance and superstition.  And yet ignorance and superstition persist in Eben Rock; and Matt must question whether his defense of Lorna is due to his steadfast belief in science and reason, or his rekindled interest in Lorna.

Like The Ape, this is a movie in which small-town people are seen as an almost medieval assemblage of churlish busybodies.   The difference here is that the deck isn't stacked quite as aggressively against them.  We don't really know what Lorna's intentions are, and we are not convinced that she isn't in fact carrying a curse that threatens everyone in Eben Rock. Similarly, in spite of his kindly demeanor, we suspect that Otto Kruger's Rev. Stevens might be up to something sneaky himself.

Nancy Kelly does a fine job as Lorna Webster. Kelly is best known as the mother of the evil child in The Bad Seed.  Three other actors familiar to Horror Incorporated viewers also share the screen here: John Loder (The Brighton Strangler) Otto Kruger (Dracula's Daughter) and Ruth Ford (The Man Who Returned To Life).  Loder is perfectly cast, and he has a very authentic, easygoing way about him that quickly gets us on his side. I've talked about Ruth Ford before, and I'm quite taken with her here.  She effortlessly conveys a tightly-wound woman with a somewhat conflicted agenda. Kruger plays quite a different fellow here than he did in Dracula's Daughter (where he portrayed the psychologist torn between the affections of the title character and Marguerite Churchill's fetching girl Friday).  He proves to be quite a versatile actor, and while I was sure I'd seen him somewhere before it took me a while to place him.