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Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE MUMMY (1932)

I’ve only seen The Mummy once before, when I was still pretty young, and I remember being disappointed when I learned that the creature in bandages I’d seen on posters and merchandise all my life was only present in the film’s short prologue. Times change, and now I’m glad that Boris Karloff didn’t spend the entire film covered in heavy make-up. Karloff owns this movie. He delivers another great performance and it feels like all the rest of the cast can do is stay out of his way. Don’t get me wrong, The Mummy is a classic and deservedly so, but I think the weight of its enduring qualities rests firmly on Karloff’s shoulders. Whenever he wasn’t onscreen, I was eagerly waiting for him to return.

The rest of the cast really falls flat when compared with Karloff. Female lead Zita Johann, as Helen Grosvenor, doesn’t have much appeal in her role, and the rest of the cast really doesn’t offer much that is memorable. The only other performer to exhibit any energy is Bramwell Fletcher, and we only see him in the opening sequence.

What really struck me was how closely this movie parallels Dracula. I don’t know that it was intentional, but I wonder if the success of the Bela Lugosi outing two years earlier led the filmmakers to think they could make lightning strike again. (Which, of course, it did.) Like Dracula, Karloff’s Imhotep, in the guise of Ardath Bey, is an ancient immortal who uses his hypnotic powers to seduce a young woman to join him at his side for eternity , and both characters’ eyes glow eerily when they hold a victim in thrall. The director, Karl Freund, was cinematographer on Dracula, and the screenwriter, John L. Balderston, wrote the stage play that version of Dracula was based on. Strangest of all, Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, who played Van Helsing and John Harker respectively in Dracula, play virtually the same roles as Dr. Muller and Frank Whemple in The Mummy.

A couple of other observations: I really like how the flashback sequence resembles a silent movie; it reminds of how a modern color film might similarly use black and white footage. I was also curious about how limited the use of music was. Music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake plays over the opening titles, and then we don’t hear any scoring until about midway through. I know many early sound films had no score whatsoever, but I also know that music was a part of film even in the silent era when most movie houses had live piano accompaniment for their features. I wonder exactly when it was that musical scoring became a staple for the movies.

Overall, I’ve probably given the impression I didn’t enjoy The Mummy, and that’s not true at all. I just think it’s a good example of how important casting can be. I’m seeing many of the films on my list for the first time, and others I’m seeing for the first time in years. I’ve idolized horror icons like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi all of my life, and in some ways it’s because many of their roles have become bigger than the films and the actors themselves. This is the third Karloff film I’ve watched since I began this project and I’m finally beginning to see what a genuinely talented actor he was. In three films I’ve seen three very different Karloffs. The Mummy certainly deserves its place among the Universal horror pantheon, and I believe it has Boris Karloff to thank for it.

This week’s supporting features:

The Merrie Melodies cartoon Bacall to Arms (1946)

The Our Gang short Bouncing Babies (1929)

Next week’s film:

Horror Island (1941) starring Dick Foran, Leo Carillo and Peggy Moran

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror – THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927)

Once again, we return to early versions of clichés we’ve know for ages. Based on a popular stage play of the era, The Cat and the Canary is a comedic haunted house thriller based around the now-familiar motif: the reading of the rich relative’s will to his horde of greedy relatives. Other familiar elements include: secret passages, an escaped lunatic, a cut telephone line, a creepy claw that reaches out of walls, a body that tumbles out of a closet and one more cliché that I’ll discuss later. The only thing missing: the painting of the late Cyrus West is lacking a pair of eyeholes that allow an unseen spy to watch the proceeding of the room. Still, there are other haunted house movies to come, perhaps we’ll get to that one later. Clichés they may be, but as I stated in my entry on The Raven, there’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing them in some of their earliest realizations.

As is usually the case when you inherit a fortune from someone who owns a spooky house, you must spend the night in said house. In this instance, however, that is not a stipulation of the will, this time Annabelle, the chosen recipient of the fortune, and the other relatives must stay the night because of the danger of the aforementioned escaped lunatic. As the reluctant inhabitants of the house begin to disappear and strange occurrences seem to center only around Annabelle when she’s alone, her sanity begins to come into question, and by the conditions of the will, she must be certified sane by a physician or the money will pass to another specified heir

I’M GOING TO DISCUSS A REVEALING PLOT POINT HERE, SO YOU MAY WANT TO SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM. As you may have guessed, every thing is eventually explained as the machinations of the heir who the fortune will fall to if Annabelle is declared insane, and that’s the final cliché I want to discuss: what I’ve come to call the Scooby-Doo villain. Anyone who’s watched cartoons since the late sixties is familiar with the idea of the miscreant who dresses up as a monster as a means to achieve his goal, usually preying on local superstitions or, as in this case, trying to drive someone mad. It’s amusing to see this idea dates back long before such villains could be foiled by a gang of teenagers and their dog. There’s even a very Scooby-esque unmasking of the culprit. I wonder if there have been many real-life criminals who have used this technique.

The film has a great cast that includes the lovely Laura LaPlante and Gertrude Astor, Creighton Hale as the nebbish hero, Flora Finch as a doddering aunt who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean Stapleton, and Martha Mattox as a creepy maid called Mammy Pleasant who could give lessons to Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers. But the real star is the director: Paul Leni. This was my introduction to Leni, a German expressionist who made his American debut with this film. Though it’s often very funny, Leni never lets go of the thriller aspects of the film with its dark moving shadows, slow tracking shots down darkly lit halls and long curtains that blow eerily in the wind. He also makes some dramatic use of superimposed shots. The film opens with a shot of the huge and imposing mansion with a distraught Cyrus West superimposed over it. As we are told of his greedy relatives waiting for him to die, the mansion is replaced by empty medicine bottles and menacing cats pawing at poor Cyrus. Later a scary skull looms over a character’s head when he blanches at the word “death”. Leni even extends his touch to the dialogue cards as the words become large and animated when a character is frightened. This also may be the earliest example I’ve seen of stylized credits: the first visual in the film is that of a gloved hand reaching past cobwebs to wipe away a thick layer of dust to reveal the film’s title.

It makes me look forward to Leni’s other film on my list, The Man Who Laughs. It’s sad that he died in 1929 at the age of 44. I would love to have seen what he might have done with sound and color.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Witch Hazel in Bewitched Bunny (1954)

The Our Gang short Boxing Gloves (1929), the first short in the series to feature Jackie Cooper, who passed away earlier this month.

I’m not sure when I’ll get to the next film. Probably May 27th at the latest, so I’ll leave the schedule open for the next couple of weeks. The film in question will be:

The Mummy (1932) starring Boris Karloff and Zita Johann

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror - NIGHT KEY (1937)

What I create, I can destroy.

It sounds a bit ominous, doesn't it? As if poor David Mallory has finally been pushed over the edge, but Boris Karloff is actually playing the hero for a change.

Night Key is the first film I'm likely to be called out on in my study. No, it's definitely not a horror film and it just barely qualifies as science fiction. When I scanned the index of Michael Mallory's book on Universal horror I found that it's not even mentioned. In fact I guess it only made my list because of its inclusion in the Boris Karloff Collection DVD set, the cover of which promises "The Master of Horror in His Most Frightening Roles!" Still I'm glad it made the list because it's a film that any fan of Karloff and classic horror should take a look at if they'd like to see the range that Boris Karloff had.

An early take on the Little Man vs. Big Business motif, Night Key is the story of inventor David Mallory, who created a near flawless security system only to have the patent stolen from him by Steven Ranger, his former rival for his late wife. Twenty years later, Mallory invents a new system that will render the previous one obsolete, but Ranger connives with a crooked lawyer to lure Mallory into signing over the rights to the new system with no intention of actually implementing it. But Mallory has also invented a device that can disrupt the old system, and with the aid of a smalltime hood named Petty Louie, sets off on a gleeful spree of breaking and entering to demonstrate to Ranger just how valuable his ingenuity is to this business equation, always leaving his calling card: "What I create, I can destroy -Night Key".

I warmed to Karloff's Mallory the second I saw him. His first moment of screen time features him tinkering with his new invention with a look of pure joy on his face, as if he creates and perfects for the pleasure in it rather than out of greed. Yes, he'd like to make money off of his invention, after all he's slowly going blind and shares a tiny apartment with a daughter who's stuck in a dead-end job, but the good his invention will do is just as important to him. His moral lapse into breaking and entering is strictly to teach the greedy a lesson. He never steals from the burgled businesses. And when a local crime syndicate takes notice of his escapades and begins to use him for more nefarious purposes, he does his best to sound the alarm, even when that bring him and his daughter under threat.

Karloff is charming as Mallory. It really is refreshing to see him free of heavy prosthetics playing an outright likable, good humored yet still sympathetic character; a scientist, but not a mad one. At the time this was made, Universal was considering phasing out horror, Karloff was probably cast mainly out of contractual obligations, and despite my affection for the old fright flicks, I wonder what else we might have seen from Karloff had the genre not seen a resurgence at the studio. It's a pity we can never revisit Karloff's stage roles.

A rather good supporting cast: again the compulsory young lovers don't offer a lot to the story, but Jean Arthur as Mallory's daughter Joan and Warren Hull as a hotshot security employee do well with the material at hand. Samuel S. Hinds as Steven Ranger has a bit more dimension than he did in last week's outing The Raven. The group of thugs led by Alan Baxter as "The Kid", while well played, are a prime example of how screen criminals have changed over the years, it's hard to watch them and not think of Rocky and Mugsy of Looney Tunes fame. Last but not least, we have Hobart Cavanaugh as Petty Louie, the small time hood with the heart of gold, who delivers the second-most memorable performance in the film as its comic relief.

In defense of its inclusion here, you can certainly see attempts have been made to sell it as a horror film, and I guess those attempts resonate to this day, if the aforementioned box set can be used as an example. Take a look at these other promotional posters, both using pictures of Karloff from other films. The second one makes a blatantly erroneous promise of "Murder in a Wax Museum". Yet I'm grateful, for without those misleadings I might never have seen it; it may not be a horror film, but I highly recommend it to the classic horror aficionado.

Rounding out this week's bill:

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in 14 Carrot Rabbit (1952)

The Our Gang short Lazy Days (1929)

I'll be taking a break next week. Got a wedding to go to. Then it's a Friday the 13th weekend with:

Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura LaPlante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley