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Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

Five years before The Wolf Man, Universal spearheaded Hollywood’s first attempt at bringing werewolves to the big screen, and I must confess I find Werewolf of London a bit more engaging than its successor. But it may be a bit unfair to say it’s the better werewolf story, as it has more in common with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Generally, we think of a werewolf as a human who is transformed into a wild beast acting on pure instinct, but in this story we’re warned that “the werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a Satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.” Indeed, the creature that Wilford Glendon transforms into is more calculating than the one Larry Talbot becomes, and there seem to be more rules involved with this lupine curse. This werewolf must kill each night he transforms or risk permanent change, and to make matters worse “the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best.”

There’s a lot of fine acting here: Henry Hull as Dr. Glendon is an already obsessed botanist whose work overshadows his marriage to his wife Lisa, played by Valerie Hobson, and his curse only serves to drive the wedge further between them. You get a sense that the two really love each other, but know deep inside they are doomed to drift apart. Warner Oland, who is best known for the Charlie Chan films, is quite memorable as Dr. Yogami, the mysterious lycanthropy expert. But again, it is the supporting cast of character actors that really shine in the film. Like a Frank Whale movie, there is a lot of humor to support the horror, and a lot of great little performances to deliver it. Particularly notable is Spring Byington as Lisa’s pot-stirring aunt, one of those types who shun the unfamiliar while simultaneously craving it. Also unforgettable: Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster, two old cockney landladies.

When I wrote about The Wolf Man, I mentioned the absence of full moon references. Here it is implicitly stated that the full moon triggers the transformation, but the concept that it takes silver to kill a werewolf is completely absent. Instead we get the mariphasa plant, a rare Tibetan flower that only blooms in moonlight that can be used as a temporary remedy for lycanthropy.

Make-up artist Jack Pierce wanted to use the werewolf effect he eventually used in The Wolf Man for this film, but Henry Hull balked at spending hours in the make-up chair, which is why we get a more minimalist werewolf here. The look of Lon Chaney Jr’s werewolf became iconic, so I wonder if things might have been different had we seen that look five years earlier. I don’t know how much of the werewolf mythos we owe to Hollywood, but perhaps mariphasa would be a bigger part of it if that hairy beast had emerged sooner. Hard to say, Wilford Glendon is far less sympathetic than Larry Talbot, and while I maintain Werewolf of London has the better story, it lacks that out-of-time quality that became such a staple of these horror classics.

This week’s supporting features:

Daffy Duck and Porky Pig in Tick Tock Tuckered (1944)

The Our Gang short Pups Is Pups (1930)

I’m taking a break next week, then I’ll return the following week with:

Tower of London (1939) starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)

Captive Wild Woman is the first of three films featuring Paula Dupree, the Ape Woman, and mainly because of availability, the only one I’ll be viewing in my project. A scientist played by John Carradine grafts some glands and a cerebrum from unwilling human donors into the body of a stolen female circus gorilla. The operation transforms her into a beautiful woman played by Acquanetta. He then reintroduces her as his patient at the circus where she demonstrates a strange influence over other animals, which makes her a natural assistant for their big cat act. This results in a romantic trial between her, the cats’ tamer and his fiancée (Milburn Stone and Evelyn Ankers), and Paula’s fury not only makes her homicidal, but also causes her to revert back to ape form.

I don’t have much to say other than this brief synopsis, because I had a hard time enjoying this one. As far as story goes, a sort of female Wolf Man in reverse, it’s not bad, although it ends abruptly and leaves some things unresolved. The cast does a fine job, with, perhaps, the exception of Milburn Stone, who I had a hard time buying as a rugged animal trainer. It’s just that I found it difficult to watch what was deemed acceptable animal treatment in the 1930s and 40s. There’s a lot of stock footage of lions and tigers being kept in small cages, and also being whipped for the purpose of entertainment. I may have gone to the circus a lot when I was a child, but I’m just not interested in seeing that sort of thing any more. I’d rather see wild animals simply be wild, rather than watch someone flaunting his bravado by making them do tricks. Normally, I can separate my feelings and opinions and watch something for what it is, but in this case my enjoyment was marred by my sympathy for the animals.

I often forgive older works of art for not being in sync with today’s mindset, and I forgive this one as well, but in this case, it doesn’t make it any easier for me to look at.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in Mutiny on the Bunny (1950)

The Our Gang short A Tough Winter (1930) which, speaking of older sensibilities, featured the now-often discussed African-American performer Stepin Fetchit.

Next week’s film:

Werewolf of London (1935) starring Henry Hull, Warner Oland and Valerie Hobson

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- CALLING DR. DEATH (1943)

This is the Inner Sanctum, a strange, fantastic world controlled by a mass of living, pulsating flesh: the mind! It destroys, distorts, creates monsters, commits murder. Yes! Even you, without knowing, can commit murder.

So the disembodied head of the Spirit of the Inner Sanctum informs us at the beginning of the first film inspired by the popular radio series.

There’s a certain variety of stories I have great affection for, they mostly take the form of short stories by authors like Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl, lurid tales often involving murder usually motivated by greed or sex, sometimes with an unexpected twist at the end. For a good portion of the twentieth century there were endless sources for them: pulp magazines, comic books like Tales from the Crypt, television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the The Twilight Zone, and, I suspect, radio shows like The Inner Sanctum.

This was my first exposure to anything Inner Sanctum and if Calling Dr. Death is typical of what you find in the Sanctum then I look forward to more. I’ve got five more films to anticipate and I may have to look into getting some of the old radio shows to listen to on my work commute.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Most of the films in the series have campy provocative titles like this one, and I kind of lowered by expectations. What I got was a dark psychological thriller with a solid cast and a mystery that kept me guessing right up until the film’s climactic sequence. Lon Chaney Jr. gives an intense performance fraught with inner-monologues heard in voice-over as a kind-hearted doctor with a troubled marriage who begins to suspect himself of his wife’s murder when he finds he can’t remember a thing that happened on the weekend the crime occurred. Patricia Morison does equally well as the adoring nurse who continues to side with him even when a fallen button from his suit places him at the scene of the crime. Also worth noting is J. Carrol Naish as a police detective who you almost want to call the film’s villain, as he hounds Chaney with his suspicions, but you never quite forget that he’s really only seeking justice. There are many twists along the way as the good doctor tries to recall the events of that weekend wondering if he can allow his wife’s lover to pay for the crime instead without knowing the full story. Many of these kinds of stories follow patterns that fans of them learn to spot, making them a tad predictable (though still fun), this one is a bit different. I won’t say the resolution will necessarily surprise you, but it still might take some time before you see it coming.

I was particularly taken with the beautiful Patricia Morison. She gives quite a performance as character with many facets. Examining her career, I’m surprised I was unfamiliar with her up until now. I discovered she was quite the leading lady in her day, but became better known for her stage career. Apparently she originated the role of Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me Kate. I hope to see more of her, if not in my horror project, at least when I’m perusing TCM. I think you can count me as a fan now. (And, as of this posting, she’s still with us at age 97! Here’s to you Miss Morison!)

This week’s supporting features:

The Merrie Melodies adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg (1942)

The Our Gang short Bear Shooters (1930)

Next week’s film:

Captive Wild Woman (1943) starring Acquanetta, John Carradine and Evelyn Ankers

A sidenote: while I’ve been somewhat random with the order I’ve been selecting these films, it’s been my intention to watch the franchise films chronologically. I’ve just learned that one of my local theatres will be running Bela Lugosi in Dracula on October 8, and I can’t resist incorporating a big screen viewing into this project. However, it does mean putting off starting the Dracula franchise until then. If you’ll be in the Orlando area that weekend, join me!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

I know I’ve already heaped a great deal of praise on Boris Karloff in these reviews, and I’m probably going to do a bit more here, but at least in Frankenstein we come to a film with an ensemble of memorable performances. I’ve found something to enjoy about every single movie I’ve reviewed so far, but so often in the old classics the casting is very uneven. Often they seem to be built around one or two stars that steal the production while many of the other actors practically sleepwalk through their roles. Not to say this cast is perfect. Mae Clarke, as Elizabeth, is kind of generic, and John Boles, as Victor Moritz, could have easily been written out completely without having much affect on the story, but there are so many other memorable performances it’s easy to overlook the weak links in the cast.

Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is practically the consummate mad scientist. (I say “practically”, because he is due to be outdone in the sequel, but it’s too soon to get into that.) It’s a wonder that Elizabeth doesn’t break off their engagement on the spot when she, Victor and Dr. Walderman find him ranting about his experiment. His vanity is such that the second his sanity is questioned he insists the three witness the birth of his creature when seconds before he wanted to keep it a secret. Clive is almost over the top, and by the time he’s shouting “He’s alive!” and “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” he’s borderline orgasmic. Sure it seems a bit campy by today’s standards, but I’ll bet there’s many a scientist who’s had a major breakthrough that can relate to Henry’s excitement.

Other great performances: Frederick Kerr, who endows Baron Frankenstein with the demeanor of an old British colonel; Edward Van Sloan, who seems to have been relegated to the role of German mentor in many Universal monster films; the underrated actor Dwight Frye as Fritz, Henry’s sadistic hunchbacked assistant, and of course Marilyn Harris as poor doomed Maria.

And then there’s Karloff, far from his first role, this was the one that made him a star, even if he was billed simply as “?” in the opening credits. Like Chaney’s Phantom, this is another case where I wish I could witness the character’s reveal the way audiences did in 1931. It’s easy to credit Jack P. Pierce’s iconic makeup design for making the Monster memorable, but it’s Karloff’s performance that makes him menacing one moment then childlike and sympathetic the next. One need only look to one of the film’s most famous scenes to know that this role was more than stumbling around and growling. The scene between the Monster and little Maria may be one of the most finely crafted scenes in the whole Universal Horror canon. It is the one moment in the film when the Monster experiences any joy. He plays Maria’s floating flower game with the enthusiasm of an amused toddler, which is what makes the scene’s outcome so much more tragic. Yes, you feel terrible for the fate of the little girl, but you also feel for the Monster and his lack of understanding of what he’s done. Curiously, the scene was censored for years, instead of ending with Maria being tossed in the water and the Monster running away confused, it ended with him grabbing her as she screams “You’re hurting me.” Leaving Maria’s fate to the audience’s imagination made it seem worse than was originally intended and probably made it harder to sympathize with the Monster, especially later on as her near catatonic father carries her limp body through the village streets.

Much of why the film works so well is probably due to the director, James Whale. Whale took on the film because he wanted to break free of the war films he’d become associated with, and ironically today he is best remembered for his horror films. Some of Whale’s trademarks are already apparent here, such as his dark sense of humor and his affection for older British character actors, like Kerr, in this case.

Now, I can’t ignore the fact that the story bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s novel. In the film Dr. Frankenstein shuns his creature when he beings to show violent tendencies, in the novel it’s merely because he’s ugly. In the novel, the Monster learns to speak and therefore articulates his misery, while the film only gives us precious glimpses at why we should sympathize with him. (Hats off to Karloff and Whale for making it work.) In fact, I’d say Dr. Frankenstein is the bigger monster in Shelley’s book, which was probably her comment on how superficial people can be. The movie seems far more concerned with entertaining than making a statement. I’m not criticizing here, I’m just observing. I love both works for different reasons. The two have become intertwined; the scarred creature with the flattened head and electrodes in his neck has become the image of Shelley’s Creature in our collective subconscious. I’m sure that’s how most people imagine the Creature when they read the novel, even if they’ve never seen the movie. One work manages to fuel interest for the other.

This week’s supporting features:

Bosko in the Looney Tunes short Congo Jazz (1930)

The Our Gang short When the Wind Blows (1930)

Next week’s film:

The Inner Sanctum mystery Calling Dr. Death (1943) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish