Monday, March 14, 2016

Friday, September 15, 1972: Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

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 (John Abbott) 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  (Nina Foch)-- 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. ...


Like its predecessor Return of the Vampire, this rare Columbia horror outing begins with a head-scratching opening crawl:
 The ancient belief is still held by many that anything that happens in the world is never lost. No sparrow falls unnoted -- no tree crashes in the forest unheard. The sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations live on in people's memories, in their legends and their stories.

Perhaps our story is something that has lived on in a person's memory or perhaps it is just a legend -- 
 Return of the Vampire's title card was confusing and unnecessary, but at least it knew when to quit. This one won't shut up.

Blah, blah, blahbity blah blah....

But instead of just tapping our feet and waiting impatiently for the movie to start, let's pause and examine this title card for a moment. The first thing we notice is that the language is almost comically grandiloquent; one can imagine John Abbott's tour guide delivering all this mumbo-jumbo in his smooth Shakespearean cadence.

But what, if anything, does it all mean?

First we are assured that the idea that "anything that happens in the world is never lost" is an "ancient belief that is still held by many". This is a bit vague but we are immediately given two examples of the sorts of things that aren't lost. First: "No sparrow falls unnoted". This is clearly derived from Matthew 10:29-31:

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

The second example, "No tree crashes in the forest unheard" is presumably based on a well-known philosophical riddle -- "if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make any sound?"  It's a conundrum that's been posed in various forms since the 19th century.

These two examples are actually incompatible, because the first refers to a New Testament assurance that God watches over the universe and is aware of everything that happens; and the second to a epistemological riddle about whether, outside the range of human perception, anything can be said to happen at all. Yet here they are cludged together, pressed into the service of another idea that immediately follows: "the sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations live on in people's memories, in their legends and their stories."

Note that the memories themselves aren't said to live on; this is something more primal. Only the strongest human emotions - "the sorrows, the joys, the loves and the hates of past generations" are carried over, like layers of sediment. This seems to be a little bit of foreshadowing, prepping us for the ancient gypsy resentments against prying outsiders, which will figure prominently in the plot.

We come now to the final line in the card:

Perhaps our story is something that has lived on in a person's memory or perhaps it is just a legend.

 Up to this point, Cry of the Werewolf's opening crawl seemed to be working (however imperfectly) toward some kind of  a point; but now the whole thing suddenly runs off the rails. The final sentence contains the qualifier "perhaps" not once but twice; and it can't decide what we're about to see falls under "memory" or "legend". In fact, faced with this choice, it hedges yet again, first proffering "memory" and ending meekly with "just a legend". 

We've seen some bad opening crawls on Horror Incorporated -- remember this one from The Beast With 5 Fingers?

An opening crawl is rarely a good idea. They are usually tacked onto the front of a movie because someone has gotten scared that the audience won't be able to follow what's happening -- never a vote of confidence. In The Beast With 5 Fingers, the crawl is evidently used to reassure the audience that what they're about to see isn't actually a horror movie. 

I'm not sure what Cry of the Werewolf is using the crawl for; it winds up as little more than a bit of cinematic throat-clearing, and was presumably dropped into an early draft of the screenplay and no one had the sense to take it out.

Even when a crawl is necessary to set the scene, it has to be very carefully written; every word counts. Here's an example of one that does everything right:


kochillt said...

An exhaustive review of a screen crawl. More entertaining than the rest of the picture.

Uncle Mike said...

Screen crawls have pretty much fallen out of fashion in the modern film era, though on-screen pre-credit exposition still happens in SF and fantasy films, probably because there's a lot of exposition to get out of the way. LORD OF THE RINGS started with a pretty good bit of backstory, but the studios forced the directors of both ZARDOZ and DUNE to tack infodumps onto the front end of the movie. In both cases the added prologue just made things more confusing.

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