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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936)

I’m sure if you come into this movie knowing as little about it as I did, you won’t get anything close to the plot you imagined from the title. I pictured a ray that rendered people or objects invisible. I’m still not entirely sure what the ray is that the title refers to. The posters seem to suggest it has something to do with the powers Boris Karloff’s character acquires, but posters have been misleading before. (See my entry on Night Key.)

What we actually have here is a rather sad melodrama entangled with science-fiction. Boris Karloff is Dr. Janos Rukh, a brilliant scientist who (with the help of some 1930s movie pseudo-science) proves that a meteor struck Africa millions of years ago leaving a deposit of an unknown element that will revolutionize both physical and medical science. Unfortunately, his initial exposure to it not only causes him to glow in the dark, but also makes his skin deadly to whoever else touches him. Thanks to renowned physician Felix Benet (played by Bela Lugosi) the physical attributes of his condition can be held back, but Benet can do nothing to prevent the effects on Rukh’s mind.

What follows is a tragic descent into madness. The element, Radium X, is refined and through the work of Rukh, Benet and their colleagues becomes everything they’d hoped it would be. However, the expedition to Africa has caused Rukh’s marriage to crumble, and he feels that he is not receiving his due from the other scientists for his discovery despite being awarded the Nobel Prize. His madness leads him to blame all of his misfortunes, both real and imagined, on the rest of the expedition and he decides to use his deadly powers to enact his revenge.

As is often the case, there is a romantic subplot, but this time it’s at the cost of Rukh’s marriage. Frances Drake, as Diane Rukh, really appears devoted to her husband, but events in Africa lead her to believe he no longer cares for her, and she runs to the arms of Frank Lawton as Ronald Drake. All just part of the spiral that Dr. Rukh’s life goes into. At the beginning he seems to have a lot going for him, and slowly he begins to lose it all, and more to due to happenstance than to his own faults. Very sad.

While essentially enjoyable, The Invisible Ray is also a mixed bag. It opens in a classic stylized Universal mansion complete with a laboratory and an observatory; the middle section, set in Africa, is filled with politically incorrect natives and wealthy Brits who whine about the weather and fancy themselves great white hunters, and the final act is the exploits of a serial killer in the streets of Paris. It could have been a mess, but once again the lead performances of Karloff and Lugosi manage to tie it together. Despite his eventual villainy, Karloff is easy to sympathize with, and Lugosi is a welcome surprise in a more heroic role for a change. The two have a wonderful chemistry that manages to keep the film’s lesser performances from dragging it down.

Now I find myself wondering, and I think I already know the answer, as they so often seem romantically motivated, will Boris or Bela ever get the girl?

This week’s supporting features:

Goofy in Goofy and Wilbur (1939)

The Our Gang short Helping Grandma (1931)

I’ll be taking a break for a bit now as I prepare for our big vacation, which includes my annual trip to Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia (See you there!). I’ll be back the weekend of September 16 with:

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) starring Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Boris Karloff

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)

The Gill Man is the last of the great classic Universal monsters, and he’s a big shift from his brethren. Unlike the other greats, there is no Karloff, Lugosi or Chaney to endow him with a soul. He’s not the first movie menace to be a head to toe creation of the make-up artists, but he’s certainly one of the most memorable. Not to take anything away from Ben Chapman and Rico Browning, the men who wore the suits, but I think most of this film’s success is owed to the people who designed them.

In terms of story, it’s pretty simple, and a tad uneven in places. A scientific expedition that falls victim to a hitherto unknown force of nature, in the form of the Gill Man, a missing link between fish and man. It’s a story framework that had been used before and has been done successfully several times since. (The Thing from Another World was released three years earlier, and of course later on we got that film’s remake, and the Alien and Predator films.) The characters don’t have much dimension. Richard Carlson and Richard Denning bicker constantly as the respective scientist and businessman of the institute sponsoring the expedition. Julie Adams (billed here as Julia) was a popular leading lady at the time, who took the role because it seemed like fun; she’s introduced as an intelligent member of the group, and not just a romantic interest for Carlson, but once the Creature shows up, her role is quickly reduced to that of the screaming, stumbling damsel. Then there's the Beauty and the Beast aspect of the plot, where the Gill Man is inexplicably drawn to a human female. (Either that, or she just looks like a more tender morsel than her male counterparts.)

None of this, however, dampens the fun. The Gill Man is a pretty scary creation; no visible zippers or obvious mask lines here, like many of the other costumed beasts of the era. He’s menacing on land, and creepy underwater. (The vulnerability of being in water while a silent killer lurks below is a scary concept to me.) I find him at his scariest when he stares at the crew of the boat through the bamboo bars of the makeshift prison they create to take him back to civilization. As a costumed monster, he’s almost completely believable; I particularly love the way his gills flap when he’s on land.

I was also watching a documentary this weekend that accompanied the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 Gamera collection in which the Chiodo Brothers lumped the Gill Man in with the likes of Godzilla, Gamera and the other Japanese costumed monsters. They may be distant cousins, but I think Alien, the creatures of the original Star Wars films, and the types of characters Doug Jones has played in films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth are examples of more direct descendants.

Incidentally, I had the opportunity to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D last year. If the opportunity arises, I recommend it. The underwater footage alone makes it worthwhile.

This week’s supporting features:

Speedy Gonzales in Mexicali Shmoes (1959)

The Our Gang short School’s Out (1930)

Next week’s film:

The Invisible Ray (1936) starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Frances Drake

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- TOWER OF LONDON (1939)

The second non-horror entry in my study in horror, and not surprisingly, it’s from the same Boris Karloff box set as Night Key. Like Night Key, I’m sure Karloff’s reputation as a horror actor was relied upon to sell both this film and the dvds to fans of the genre. But what we really have here is a historical drama, albeit a historically inaccurate one, as it tells the, until recently, widely believed account of Richard III’s bloody ascent to the throne of England. These days we know that Richard has been viciously maligned over the centuries, so just as with Amadeus, you enjoy the film at face value rather than as a history lesson.

Karloff may have been used to sell this film, his leering face looms over the title in most of the old posters, and recent vhs covers featured only him, but this is Basil Rathbone’s time to shine. Don’t get me wrong, Karloff is great, as usual, but it’s really a minor role. Rathbone is brilliant as the duplicitous Richard, and quite scary sometimes as his machinations bring him closer and closer to the throne. Rathbone had already become Sherlock Holmes to the world by the time he was making this film, and it’s what he’s best known for today, so it was nice to get a look at his acting range here in a role that was so far removed from Holmes.

Another cast with very few weak links. (The weak links being John Sutton and Nan Grey in the obligatory romantic subplot.) A young Vincent Price, in one his earliest film roles is enjoyable as the sniveling Duke of Clarence, one of Richard’s obstacles, but I was particularly impressed by Ian Hunter and Barbara O’Neil as King Edward VI and Elyzabeth, his queen. O’Neil’s Elyzabeth is compassionate, but a powerless pawn against the politics of state. One scene in particular, in which she must make a decision she knows will seal the fate of the last two heirs between Richard and the throne, is heartbreaking. Hunter’s Edward is that rare breed of Hollywood, the morally ambiguous character. So often movie characters are quite simply good or bad with no middle ground. It’s hard to make up your mind about Edward, he’s kind and likable one moment, and the next he’s conniving with Richard, little knowing he’s just another puppet to him.

I suppose one of the reasons Tower has a reputation as a horror film, is that some elements are horrific. Boris Karloff, as Mord, the executioner and dungeon master, is ruthless and sadistic. Some of the scenes of torture and murder are terrifying, and when Mord claims his last two victims it’s as chilling as anything a bona fide horror film has to offer.

This week’s supporting features:

Donald Duck in The Wise Little Hen (1934)

The Our Gang short Teacher’s Pet (1930) featuring the series debut of Matthew “Stymie” Beard and June Marlowe as Miss Crabtree

Next week’s film:

Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) starring Richard Carlson, Julie Adams and Richard Denning