Sunday, August 31, 2014

Friday, April 14, 1972: Cat People (1942)


Synopsis: Nautical engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) one afternoon at the zoo.  Irena is sketching a black panther as it paces in its cage.  The two hit it off in a meet-cute sort of way, and Irena allows Oliver to walk her home.

Irena, it turns out, lives alone in a large and tastefully-furnished apartment nearby, and seems grateful for Oliver's company.  She tells him that she hasn't made any friends since moving to the city.  Oliver ends up staying well past dark, and as he leaves he asks to see her again the next day and she agrees.

Feeling she needs a companion, Oliver buys a kitten for her at a local pet shop, but when he gives it to her the kitten spits and backs away fearfully.  Irena tells him that cats don't like her.  He trades the kitten in for  a bird, and this seems to please her, but when she reaches inside the cage the bird panics and quickly dies.

Before long, Oliver and Irena are engaged. On their wedding day they have dinner at a local restaurant with Oliver's co-workers, including Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) who acts like one of the guys in spite of being young, pretty and apparently available. Alice has picked this Serbian restaurant in Irena's honor, and Irena finds it delightful.  The mood is quite jovial, but a strange woman approaches their table and speaks to Irena briefly  in Serbian, calling her "sister".  Irena is shaken by this encounter.

Returning home that night, she confides to Oliver that she isn't able to consummate the marriage right away -- she speaks vaguely of being frightened by an old family curse and asks him to be patient.  Oliver, who has  "nice guy" written all over him, agrees. They begin sleeping in separate rooms.

Weeks pass and nothing changes.  Oliver gently suggests that Irena see a psychiatrist, and she agrees; but after only one session with the oily Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) she stops going. When Oliver finds out that she's abandoned her sessions he is angry.  Irena is angry in turn at all the time Oliver is spending with Alice, and angrier still when she learns that Oliver has confided to her Irena's reluctance to consummate the marriage.  What she doesn't know is that Alice has also confessed to Oliver that she has always carried a torch for him.

Irena reluctantly goes back to see Dr. Judd, and the nature of her affliction becomes clear: she believes that if she becomes sexually aroused, she will turn into a deadly panther. Judd decides he's going to dissuade the beautiful Irena of this notion by seducing her, not knowing that the curse is real....

Comments:  I don't know what kind of ratings Horror Incorporated  enjoyed during its run, or indeed if any such records (which I have to assume would have been gathered for the KSTP sales team, even for a show that aired so late at night) still exist. But we can safely assume that the show was a success, and bested its competition in that less-than-vital midnight to 3am timeslot.

We can assume this not only because of the show's longevity (it ran for a good decade), or because it still has a following after 40+ years (unlike, say, KSTP's contemporaneous late-night staple The Henry Wolf Show) but also because it spun itself off to other day-parts, popping up in the months between football and baseball season as a noontime Saturday show and on rare occasions (as it does tonight) on Friday night.  On this particular Friday we have one feature, and it's a good one: Val Lewton's Cat People.

Cat People is an eerie and delicious film, and captures perfectly not only Lewton's unusual style but also the dark thematic freight in which he traffics. Irena's world of magic and ancient curses is quite naturally seen, by everyone from Oliver to Alice to Dr. Judd, as a foolish superstition, and it is deemed important by everyone that she be convinced it's simply a delusion.  Once this is accomplished, it is assumed, the problem will go away.

But as is often the case in horror films, you mock the Devil at your own risk. Everyone who dismisses the curse ends up endangered by it; and even Irena, who wishes wholeheartedly that her curse is simple nonsense just as Oliver and Judd keep telling her, ultimately pays a price for turning her back on her true nature. In a way the "cat woman" who speaks to her in the restaurant has sealed her fate; Irena knows the woman has overheard her and her friends celebrating her wedding, and her look of dread after the woman calls her "sister" is palpable.  Irena knows that she has no business getting married, not with the curse that hangs over her head. But like many people in horror films she is seduced by the rational world and its promise of a universe safely under our control.

When Dr. Judd meets Irena at the zoo he tells her that her obsession with the panther in its cage is related to a very human attraction to chaos and self-destruction.  He talks about the innate human desire for death -- a Freudian belief which seems to peg him as a practitioner of psychotherapy, a discipline that is rare today but which was fairly common in the 1940s.

Psychotherapy was rooted in the Victorian era and its curiously repressed attitudes toward sexuality. Sex -- to the Victorian mind -- was closely related to death, an idea this film takes quite literally.

Dr. Judd assumes that everything Irena says is shorthand for something else. He takes nothing she says seriously. At one point Irena points out to Judd that he doesn't see any difference between the mind and the soul, and he doesn't disagree with this.  But we can't blame Dr. Judd for misinterpreting her malady because we come from the same rational world he does. We too view Irena's curse as palpably, painfully Freudian in nature: her sexual desires are so strong that she is afraid of them,  and believes that unleashing them will destroy not only her, but everyone around her.

Lots of filmmakers have tried to imitate Lewton's particular style, but no one has come close to succeeding. A lot of painful ripoffs followed the success of Cat People, among them the Horror Incorporated staples She-Wolf of London and The Beast With 5 Fingers  -- but the clumsiness of these imitators only underscores Lewton's singular talent.

Lewton always made the most from the acting talent he had at hand, and this film is no exception.  Simone Simon is beautiful and appropriately mysterious as the troubled Irena; Kent Smith's performance isn't showy but his squeaky-clean, all-American manner is exactly right for the part.  Jane Randolph's Alice is good-hearted and funny, a bit like the lead actress' best friend in a screwball comedy.  And Tom Conway is pitch-perfect as the oily and immoral Dr. Judd.  I can't think of a picture where I've been happier to see a character get killed by a leopard.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saturday, April 8, 1972: Cry of the Werewolf (1943) / The Island Monster (1954)

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

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

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

  Comments: We've seen Cry of the Werewolf a few times on Horror Incorporated, and after its last broadcast I commented that it now seemed permanently lodged in the second-feature slot.  Well, now it's back as the evening's first feature.

Clearly, my track record in predicting the future is right up there with The Amazing Criswell.

To be fair, tonight's movie is paired with the greatly inferior The Island Monster, so I can't fault the Horror Incorporated programmers for pushing this one back up to the top of the bill.

This is a film that holds up pretty well to repeated viewings.  It's not as good as Columbia's previous horror outing, Return of the Vampire, but it has its moments. Nina Foche stands out as Marie LaTour, Gypsy queen and guardian of the secret and deadly art of lycanthropy.

We've noted before that Columbia's take on werewolf lore differs from that of Universal's popular series starring Lon Chaney, Jr.  In Cry of the Werewolf the lycanthropes can change form whenever they wish; and when they do, they fully become wolves, not simply hairy and savage humans. And lycanthropy isn't the curse that was depicted in Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man either; here it's shown to be a hereditary gift that affords great mystical power to those who possess it. So the unconventional werewolf lore makes a pretty refreshing change to what we've seen in horror films up to this point.

What Cry of the Werewolf lacks is a strong protagonist.  Dr. Morris dies quickly, leaving his son Bob and girlfriend Elsa as the protagonists and the chief enemies of Marie LaTour.  Unfortunately, Bob (played by Stephen Crane, whose most famous role -- husband to Lana Turner -- was a brief one) is such a sad-sack character that he makes no impression whatsoever, and Elsa (played by the charming Osa Massen) is stuck in such a thinly written part that making an impression isn't really an option (her main function is to stare lovingly at Bob -- a challenge for any actress, it would seem).

John Abbott, who played ill-fated tour guide Peter Althius, was a sturdy character actor with a dignified bearing and Shakespearean cadence. He's not particularly well-used here, but at least it's good to see him working. He was one of those performers who were ubiquitous on 60's television, instantly recognizable even if you didn't know his name, doing guest shots on Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, Flipper, I Spy, Get Smart, Star Trek, The Man From UNCLE, and many others.

The Island Monster

Synopsis: Italian police detective Mario Andreani (Renato Vicario) is assigned to an interdiction effort on the island of Ischia, a fashionable tourist spot identified by the police as a hub of drug trafficking. Andreani's wife Giulia (Jole Fierro) is the jealous type, and worries that the island's surplus of wealthy and attractive women will lead her husband astray.

Despite her misgivings, Mario seems quite devoted to his wife and his young daughter Fiorella. Even so, the island's police chief tells Mario that the most promising informant on the island is the beautiful lounge singer Gloria (Franca Marzi), and that since Andreani is such a handsome galoot, he should have an easy time seducing her and gaining her confidence.

Andreani's task force carries out a number of successful raids against the local drug cartel. The cartel's head,  Don Gaetano (Boris Karloff) decides that he's been inconvenienced long enough.  Using his cover as a wealthy philanthropist who runs a free hospital for sick children, he befriends Andreani and his wife, learning their habits as well as their weaknesses.  One night, while Andreani is out on a raid, Giulia receives an anonymous phone call.  Her husband, the caller says, is at a local night club with another woman.  Alarmed,  Giulia goes to the nightclub, leaving her daughter asleep in bed.

The moment she leaves the house, Don Gaetano enters and kidnaps the child.  Giulia, finding no sign of her husband at the nightclub, returns home and is stunned to discover that Fiorella is missing.

Soon a representative from the cartel calls, demanding that Andreani resign from the task force.  If he doesn't comply, his daughter will be killed.  As Andreani struggles to do the right thing, Gaetano stays close to the family, offering them his friendship and his counsel....

Comments: While The Island Monster's title strongly suggests a horror film,  it actually has no horror elements whatsoever; it's a crime melodrama that comes by way of Italy.  This opus has very meager production values and some truly dreadful English dubbing (the voice of the little girl Fiorella is done by an adult -- while this isn't unusual in a dubbed movie, the voice used is astonishingly bad and would have fooled no one). The dubbing here is so poor it makes the frequently-mocked work done in Japanese monster movies look elegant by comparison.

But even worse than the dubbing are the dreadful gaps in logic.  Italian genre films are often indifferent to absurdities and plot holes, and this one is no exception.

For example, we're told that Don Gaetano is a fiendishly clever drug kingpin (he maintains a front as a beloved local philanthropist) yet he hatches a hare-brained  scheme to kidnap Andreani's daughter, with the idea that this will somehow force Andreani to step down as the head of the drug task force.  Now, I'm not a criminal mastermind, but even I can see the problem with this plan: kidnapping a cop's daughter will make the police more interested in finding you, not less interested. 

After all, the kidnapper's power is quite limited because he ultimately has to do one of two things: kill the victim or let her go.  Whichever choice he makes, the child will be out of his control within a matter of days, and once that happens the cops will come down on him like a ton of bricks.  And even if Andreani steps down from the task force permanently (which is by no means certain), the cops could just appoint someone else.

It's possible, of course, that Andreani is just such a superstar crime-buster that he can't be replaced.  This seems unlikely, but if it were true, there would better options to defeat him -  bribery, for instance,  or blackmail. These tactics would leave the police department's golden boy in place, and the police would therefore believe that everything was being done that could be done -- even if Don Gaetano's goons slipped through his fingers on a fairly regular basis. But really, any other tactic - including killing Andreani in order to get him out of the way - would be better than the one that Don Gaetano chooses.

Even daffier is Don Gaetano's decision to kidnap Fiorella himself.  Doesn't this guy have henchmen? Is he so much of a micro manager that he can't leave the kidnappings to the specialists? Does he drive the getaway cars too? 

I don't understand why criminals in the movies are such nitwits.  But then they aren't so clever in real life either, are they? There should probably be a school or something where criminals can get the training they need to do a professional job and not mess everything up.  I'd start one myself, but I have a pretty full plate already.  Maybe I'll start work on that  idea when I'm done with the Horror Incorporated Project.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saturday, April 1, 1972 (Midnight): The Ghost Ship (1943) / The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Synopsis: Tom Merriam (Russell Wade) is the new 3rd officer on the merchant ship Altair. Merriam meets the captain, Will Stone (Richard Dix) and is surprised to find that Stone had asked for Merriam to be assigned to him specially. Stone tells him that Merriam's background is much like his own; they were both orphans, and both men were therefore driven to succeed and make lives of their own. As Merriam is getting ready to leave the captain's cabin he sees a moth hovering around a light. He is going to swat it, but the captain stops him. "You have no right to kill that moth," the captain says gently. "Its safety doesn't depend on you."

As the voyage begins, Merriam gets to know the crew: the no-nonsense first officer Bowns; radioman "Sparks" Winslow, and Finn, a mute whose gnarled face seems unwelcoming. Stone seems to treat Merriam like the son he never had, and Merriam seems grateful for his fatherly attitude.

But almost immediately there are troubling things about Captain Stone. He demands order and discipline, but is quick to deflect blame when his orders put member of his crew in danger. Even so,  the crew is very loyal to him, and they are careful not to cross him.

But one day seaman Louie Parker takes an insolent tone with Stone; though Stone is clearly angry, he takes no action.  But later, when the crew is stowing the anchor chain below decks, Louie is given the task of gathering the chain in the hold so that it doesn't become tangled.  This is dangerous work; the heavy chain slides down into the hold quickly and Louie must manipulate it with a spar as it descends to ensure that it doesn't pile up in one part of the hold .  Then he must exit the narrow interior hatchway while the chain is still snaking down into the hold.

Captain Stone, walking down the corridor adjacent to the hatch, casually shuts it as he passes.  Parker soon discovers he can't get out, and shouts for the men above to stop lowering the chain.  But they can't hear him and Parker is soon crushed to death under the chain's weight.

Merriam discovers the body, and notes that the hatch had been dogged from the outside. Stone seems to be entirely indifferent to Louie's death.  The man was insolent and a loudmouth, the captain tells him. There was no place on board the ship for him.  To Merriam, it's clear that Captain Stone closed the hatch deliberately, knowing what would happen. And while the Captain doesn't admit it, he doesn't deny it either, and he makes clear the meaning of his comment about the moth.  The Captain sees himself responsible for the safety of his crew; and because those lives are his responsibility, he is free to take their lives as he chooses. This lesson, he makes clear, is something Merriam must learn if he is to command a ship of his own one day.

The ship arrives in port, and Merriam goes directly to the office of the shipping line. He tells the line representatives about his suspicions regarding Captain Stone. Reluctantly, the administrators call an inquest.  Merriam tells what he knows, but one by one, the crew of the Altair go out of their way to vouch for the Captain's sanity and even-handedness.  Stone is quickly exonerated.

Despondent, Merriam leaves the inquest knowing he will need to find a new job.  But later that evening he is drawn into a fight and hit over the head.  He awakens on board the Altair, now far out to sea.  He quickly realizes that the Captain arranged for him to be brought back -- and is planning to kill him....

Comments: Val Lewton's relationship with RKO studios was an interesting one.  The studio brass seemed to leave him alone for the most part, but certain elements of his movies were imposed upon him with a heavy hand.  For example, nearly all of Lewton's films began with a lurid title the studio handed off to him: Cat People started that way, as did  I Walked With a Zombie and (so it is claimed) did tonight's feature, The Ghost Ship. 

This gambit actually worked pretty well.  Lewton could complain about the catch-penny titles, but he was actually quite masterful at thinking his way out of them, redirecting what he thought the studio wanted into stories that were far more intelligent and lyrical than anyone could have imagined. So in a way the studio did him a favor by forcing him to improvise, to take what was clearly a dismal or shopworn concept and turn it inside out.

Tonight's feature goes quite far afield from what one might expect from a movie called The Ghost Ship.  There is a ship, and the movie is very moody and atmospheric, as you'd expect from Val Lewton. But the horror elements are surprisingly muted; there isn't a ghost in sight.  In fact, there is no supernatural subtext whatsoever. Instead, we have is a rumination about the meaning of leadership and responsibility. One of the larger questions the movie tackles -- via the characters of Captain Stone and his younger reflection character Merriam -- is how a man reconciles himself with the difficulties and disappointments of life without losing faith in his fellow man.

Stone is a man who has lost his way, though he doesn't realize it. He and the married Ellen clearly had spent years trying to find a way to be together.  When she finally manages to divorce her husband, she expects Stone to willingly drop his life at sea to be with her.  But she doesn't realize that she made him wait too long; the ship has become his entire universe, and controlling that universe has become his obsession.

Stone's disappointment in Merriam is so much the greater because of the father-son relationship he imagined, and it is enough for him to cause him to snap - he becomes reckless, first in denying to Ellen via radiogram that Merriam is aboard; then in the murder of Sparks; and finally in his determination to filet Merriam while he's hogtied to his bunk. He has come to believe what he told Merriam about the crew -- that they are just cattle for him to herd. 

Fortunately for Merriam his secret benefactor proves to be the mute Finn, whose imposed silence allows him the ability to carefully observe everything on board ship. He takes it upon himself to safeguard not just Merriam, but his innocence as well.  "The boy is safe," Finn narrates near the end of the picture.  "His faith in humanity is preserved." The device of having a mute character narrate the film is a jarring one at first, and it's used rather haphazardly, but it proves to be a good role for Lewton regular Skelton Knaggs. Veteran actor Richard Dix is also quite effective as the seemingly gentle but ultimately homicidal ship's captain. Edith Barrett has perhaps the most difficult role as Ellen, who must haul buckets of sunshine to a couple of pretty dreary fellows. It's one of the most interesting roles in this less-than-stellar Lewton effort.

Synopsis: Nathanial Billings (Boris Karloff) is a wigged-out professor who owns a dilapidated colonial inn. Billings carries out unorthodox experiments in the basement of the house, much to the consternation of the town mayor / sheriff / banker / justice of the peace Dr. Lorencz (Peter Lorre). Billings is paying a usurious interest rate on the mortgage and for this reason is eager to sell. The only hitch is that nobody would want the place -- it is in desperate need of maintenance and is quite off the beaten track.

His prayers are answered when young divorcee Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) shows up at the inn with the determination to buy it and restore it to its former approximation of glory. Billings gets her to agree to let him stay on for a time and work on his experiments in the basement.

The nature of his experiments quickly becomes clear to us. Billings is a patriotic fellow, and he wants to do his part for the war effort. He believes he is closing in on a method of making ordinary men into super-soldiers. Alas, none of the door-to-door salesmen he's used as guinea pigs have become super-soldiers. In fact, none of them have survived the treatment. So there is a growing stack of dead salesmen in the basement, which he is desperately trying to hide.

Soon Winnie's ex-husband (Larry Park) shows up and immediately becomes suspicious of the goings-on around the house, Dr. Lorencz becomes an unlikely backer in Dr. Billing's experiments, and a new dopey door-to-door salesman ( "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom) becomes the latest chump hoping to be converted to a superman.

Comments: This is the first madcap comedy we've seen on Horror Incorporated, and it's a movie so tethered to one locale that it looks as though it was originally written for the stage -- even though the credits indicate that it's an original screenplay.

And while I knew I'd never seen it before, why did The Boogie Man Will Get You seem so familiar to me?

I finally figured it out, and no doubt you have already done so as well: The Boogie Man Will Get You is a pretty blatant knockoff of Arsenic and Old Lace, which was a popular Broadway show at the time. Karloff himself had originated the role of Jonathan Brewster on stage the previous year. Instead of two dotty but lovable aunts collecting dead bodies in the cellar of their boarding house, we have a dotty but lovable scientist storing dead bodies in the cellar of his inn.

As you've probably already guessed, this is about as much a horror movie as Arsenic and Old Lace was. It seems to have slipped into the Son of Shock! package more or less by accident (perhaps the title and the presence of Karloff and Peter Lorre convinced someone at Screen Gems that it was a horror flick).

So we must shrug for the moment and go along with it.

As a horror movie, it's obviously a non-starter. As a comedy -- well, it certainly makes you appreciate Arsenic and Old Lace, in much the same way that watching Starcrash improves your opinion of George Lucas' talent as a filmmaker.

Karloff is perfectly serviceable in the absent-minded professor role, and Peter Lorre in particular seems to be enjoying himself as the kooky and amoral Dr. Lorencz. Retired boxer "Slapsy" Maxie Rosenbloom gets in some laughs as an unsuccessful cosmetics salesman.
And Jeff Donnell (here credited as "Miss Jeff Donnell") shines in her too-brief screen appearance. Considered too plain-looking to be a romantic lead (at least by Hollywood standards), her career sputtered out too quickly.... though I suspect any agent who let her use the stage name "Jeff" might not have been acting in her best interests.