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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


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