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Friday, September 30, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)


I never participated in that line at The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the lips would sing “Claude Rains was the Invisible Man” and the audience would shout, “Who’s Claude Rains?” Ignoring th
at the answer was right there in the song, of course I knew damn well who Claude Rains was. The Invisible Man was, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for Rains, who appeared in many classics over his career, but this was his first major role, and the one that made him famous, which is interesting considering his face is only seen for about twenty seconds.

Jack Griffin is quite a contrast from Rains’ other roles too. There’s usually a level of charm in a Claude Rains character, just look at the often unscrupulous yet always likable Captain Renault in Casablanca, arguably his other most famous role, but there’s little to like about this self-serving invisible man with an inflated sense of importance. But it’s a memorable performance for such an unlikable character. He lashes out at people with little provocation and embarks on a reign of terror with an air of pure glee.

At least in
the film, his madness can be blamed on the ingredient monocane in his invisibility formula; in the novel, his egotism is a constant that the formula merely intensifies. Yet, The Invisible Man is a far more accurate reflection of its literary source than Frankenstein or Dracula. Yes, it has a romantic subplot injected into it, some of the novel’s characters are absent, and it has a very different climax, but a lot of the elements of the book are still there.

In the end however, I’d say this film is more Whale than Wells. One of director James Whale’s trademarks was his dark sense of humor. There’s plenty of humor simply in the casting of the wonderful Una O’Connor who plays the landlady at the inn where Griffin takes up residence, (and who gets an even bigger and funnier role later on in Bride of Frankenstein), and more humor can be found as Griffin dispatches one-liners when he victimizes innocent villagers, but it’s Whale’s juxtaposition of slapstick and horror that really struck a chord with me. Take for example Griffin’s murder of a policeman that is preceded by his throwing ink in the man’s face resulting in an Oliver Hardy-esque take to the camera.

There are many great performances by character actors in small roles too numerous to mention, though I must give props to E. E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Henry Travers, who is probably best known as the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is enjoyable as Dr. Cranley, but William Harrigan is rather dull as Dr. Kemp. And I’m afraid even Gloria Stuart’s role as Griffin’s love interest, Flora, leaves something to be desired. It may not be her fault, as I said, the romantic subplot seems like it’s only there to fill an obligatory niche, and I feel the need to go easy on Miss Stuart, as I was somewhat irritated last year when she passed away and headlines could only refer to her as the “Titanic actress” as if the rest of her 72 year career was non-existent.

Rounding out the things that make this movie special are John P. Fulton’s special effects. Even today those scenes where Griffin removes his bandages to reveal nothing underneath are pretty startling. I’m sure they incited many gasps in the 1930s.

Something else that sets the Invisible Man series apart from the Frankenstein and Dracula films is that the author of the source material was around to see it. I’m not sure if H. G. Wells’ reaction to the movies is documented, but I’d be very interested in what he thought of seeing his late 19th Century story, brought into the age of automobiles and radios.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Ali Baba Bunny (1957)

The Our Gang short Bargain Day (1931) featuring the final appearance of Jackie Cooper in the series.

Next week I go to a theatrical screening of Dracula (1931), I’ll post my entry on that sometime the following weekend. If you’re going to be in Central Florida on October 8, stop by the Enzian in Maitland and join me.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)


In Man Made Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. is instantly likeable as carny Dan McCormick, the soul-survivor of a tragic bus accident. He’s a happy, go-lucky and trusting sort, if a bit on the dim side, and that what’s makes the film’s turn of events all the more sad.

Let me start by saying Chaney’s performance is a refreshing change from the sad protagonists of The Wolf Man and Calling Dr. Death. I like his performances in those films, but I must confess I was beginning to wonder how much of a range he had, which is a bit unfair. I was forgetting that he’d already won a lot of people over on stage and screen as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a performance that would be emulated in cartoons and other comedies for decades to come. In fact there are shades of Lennie in Dan.

I suppose the very things that make us like Dan are what lead to his downfall, most of all the fact that he’s so trusting. Surviving an accident that electrocutes all of his fellow passengers and his carnival job as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, leads benign scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) to believe Dan may have an immunity to electricity and wants to conduct some experiments on him. Trusting Dan is more than willing. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s duplicitous partner Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwell) wants to use electricity to alter the brains of what he considers lesser men, to turn them into an army of mindless thugs, and Carl is the perfect guinea pig.

It’s heartbreaking watching what Rigas’s secret experiments do to Dan. The cheerful guy we liked at the beginning of the film becomes a morose parody of his former self, and eventually a zombified drone that murders Dr. Lawrence on Rigas’s command and finds himself on death row unable to defend himself with anything but the hypnotic confession that Rigas has planted in his mind.

It’s a very well made film, if you can handle the sad stuff, but then, most of the classic horror films have some kind of tragic element. Though I think the romantic subplot between a reporter and Dr. Lawrence’s niece / assistant June (Frank Albertson and Anne Nagel) could have been done differently. Albertson’s Mark Adams seems a bit wedged in to the story. Dan is clearly flirting with June early in the movie; I think some seeds of romance between those two might have better served the overall story.

Last but not least, I must mention Corky. This may be the earliest film I’ve seen to use an animal, particularly a dog, to elicit sympathy from the audience. There have been some canine casualties in The Mummy and The Invisible Ray, not that Corky dies, but the dogs in those stories were peripheral characters at best. Corky, the family dog in the Lawrence household, is very much a full-blown characters. Corky romps playfully with Dan, he sits waiting sadly outside the laboratory door as Dan receives the detrimental doses of electricity, and their last moment together… I’ll leave that for you to experience yourself. Corky was quite the little furry actor.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in The Birthday Party (1931)

The Our Gang short Little Daddy (1931)

Next week’s film:

The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan and Henry Travers

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE KILLER, BORIS KARLOFF (1949)



I’m going to cut to the chase with a SPOILER ALERT. The title is a red herring. Of course, you don’t have much of a mystery if you reveal the killer in the opening credits, but then Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff isn’t much of a mystery to begin with. Oh, it’s fun, but I can’t help but think there was so much more that could have been done with it.
According to what I’ve read, it was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bob Hope, but following the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which I’ll get to in a future entry) Universal was eager to team the duo up with another horror legend.
With Boris Karloff’s talents and a tighter script, it could have been great; instead it’s merely good. A whodunit, set in a hotel with a gaggle of suspects, all of whom hope to pin the crime on Lou Costello, but the script doesn’t feel the need for any logical connections, and it introduces plot devices, like a procured confession signed by Costello, that are quickly abandoned. Finally, when the killer is revealed (SPOILER) it’s someone with no discernible motive whatsoever. I realize this film is primarily a comedy, but I think tightening up the mystery elements could have made the film work better as a whole.
Worst of all, Karloff is woefully underused. His best scene comes somewhere around the middle of film, when he tries to hypnotize Costello into committing suicide, so the aforementioned confession can be left with the body. A lot of laughs come from failed suicide attempts, but perhaps more mileage could have been gained had they let the motif run through the rest of the film.

More laughs result as the body count increases, and Bud and Lou find themselves hiding body after body. I think my favorite gag is where they hide a pair of corpses in plain sight by engaging them in a game of bridge. (It’s interesting to note, that the presence of onscreen corpses made the movie somewhat controversial overseas. Many such scenes were cut, which would have deprived the film of some of its funniest moments.)

So overall, funny, but not as funny as it could have been. I hope to find improvements were made when the three reteamed for Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This week’s supporting features:

Daffy Duck and Conrad Cat in Conrad the Sailor (1942)

The Our Gang short Love Business (1931)

Next week’s film:
Man Made Monster (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Lionel Atwill and Samuel S. Hinds

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Hand for Marcella

You might recall an earlier blog entry where I extolled the virtues of The Puppini Sisters. Well, the group's founder Marcella Puppini has another group on the side called Marcella and The Forget Me Nots, and their new album comes out at the end of the month, and I can't resist giving them a shout out. (May seem like this entry's a big ad, but what can I say? I'm a big fan.) Here's a player where you can sample their work: