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.


kochillt said...

Two films I haven't seen in over 30 years. I was amazed to catch glimpses of ISLAND MONSTER on television, as it only played Italian-language theaters on its original release, but obviously provided Boris with a working vacation and decent fishing. It's been over 40 years since I saw John Abbott's masterpiece for Republic, 1945's THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST.

Uncle Mike said...

You have me at a disadvantage; I've never seen THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST, but it would be interesting to see a beefier role for Abbot. As to THE ISLAND MONSTER, it does seem reasonable to assume that Karloff got a nice vacation out of the deal. I hope so. It would help sooth the sting of appearing in this one.

kochillt said...

The only time I saw THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST would have been at my grandparent's house in Columbus around 1970...yikes! (they moved to Florida in '73).

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