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.