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Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)

This is the third film I’ve watched from The Boris Karloff Collection box set that doesn’t really qualify as horror, not that I’m complaining, just a little memo to the people over at Universal’s home video department who promised it would contain Karloff’s “most frightening roles”. The Black Castle is more of an adventure film, belonging more with the likes of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask than Frankenstein and Dracula. I think, though, the producers wanted to convince audiences they were coming to a horror film. Apart from casting two horror icons and opening music that seems to suggest that spooky things are on the way, there’s a number of horror clichés scattered throughout. There’s an alligator pit, the threat of being buried alive, and even an opening graveyard scene serenaded by a howling wolf.

But once the opening framing sequence in the cemetery ends, the adventure plot quickly unfolds. Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) disguised as Richard Beckett investigates the disappearance of two friends, last seen in the castle of the sinister Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Matters become complicated when Burton falls in love with the Count’s wife (Rita Corday) and has to add a rescue from a loveless marriage to his mission. It’s a simple plot, and probably not the most original, but it’s well executed and has a pretty solid cast that also includes character actor Henry Corden who would go on to be the second actor to voice Fred Flintstone.

I am somewhat puzzled as to how Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. were reduced to supporting roles at this stage in their careers, but they are good performances. Karloff plays the Count’s good-hearted personal physician. It’s always nice to see Karloff as one the good guys, and the role has some dimensions, as his sense of self-preservation is greater than his sense of justice. Chaney’s role is downright mystifying. He’s convincing as a hulking mute servant, but it’s a role that could have been played by almost any beefy actor, it’s as if he’s only there to add one more name actor to the cast.

So, not horror, but still an enjoyable ride. Two more movies to go in the box set, I’m not sure what they’ll turn out to be, but I look forward to finding out.
This week’s supporting features:
Bugs Bunny in Buckaroo Bugs (1944)

The Our Gang short Dogs Is Dogs (1931)
Next week:
Black Friday (1940) starring Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi, and Anne Nagel

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

Is this Hollywood’s first attempt at rebooting a franchise? I’m sure many who haven’t seen The Mummy’s Hand and the three Mummy films that followed it assume they are sequels to the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, when it is, in fact, its own series. Yet, it’s clearly conceived to build on people’s memories of the first film. The origin of Kharis, the mummy of the latter films is virtually identical to that of Karloff’s Imhotep, so much so that his origin flashback is presented with the same footage from the earlier film.

The Mummy’s Hand is enjoyable enough, even if it is a bit uneven. (Which so far seems to be a consistent characteristic of the Mummy films.) It can’t seem to make up its mind on whether it wants to be a horror, comedy, or adventure film, but at least it has a capable cast of character actors. Dick Foran and Peggy Moran establish the chemistry they will carry over into Horror Island the following year, while Wallace Ford and Cecil Kellaway make for entertaining comic foils. George Zucco is a formidable villain, and Tom Tyler is creepy enough as Kharis the mummy, even if I question the decision to black out his eyes. I’ve seen photographs of him in full mummy make-up and his own gaze is formidable enough without special effects.

The plot is rather simple, and probably launches the cliché we’ve come to associate with mummy movies: Desecrating an ancient Egyptian tomb leads to becoming the victim of that tomb’s mummified guardian. Though I never realized that a catalyst in the form of a fanatical religious cult was needed in order to restore life to the guardian, for the mummy cannot walk unless disciples of the cult give him a dose of serum derived from tanna leaves. It seems to me the cult’s value of ancient tombs over human life requires a high level of devotion, but I suppose such fanaticism can be found in modern religions to this very day.

The Mummy’s Hand reliance on comic relief can be rather jarring at times. I found it particularly odd for Ford and Kellaway to be amusing themselves with card tricks mere moments after the death of a colleague, but sometimes that’s just the way of Hollywood. It’s going to be a while before I get to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but I’ll be certain to draw on memories of this film when I write my entry for it, because I could easily see the script for Hand working as a piece for Bud and Lou with only the slightest of tweaking.

This week’s supporting features:

The Silly Symphony The Skeleton Dance (1929)

The Our Gang short Shiver My Timbers (1931)

In two weeks:

The Black Castle (1952) starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Richard Greene, Stephen McNally and Rita Corday

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- DRÁCULA (1931)

I’m afraid I didn’t like it. Sorry to start this entry off so bluntly, but I know I’m going to take some flack for my opinion, so I thought it best to get it out in the open early. I know a great many people hold Universal’s Spanish language version of Dracula, shot on the same sets with a translation of the same script, in high regard, some even find it superior to the Lugosi version. It just turns out I’m not among them. I made an effort; I really went in wanting to like it, but it just wasn’t to be. Have my love of Lugosi and the higher profile of the other version become so elevated in my psyche that this one couldn’t possibly eclipse it? Perhaps, to a degree. After all, when we hear a new version of a popular song we tend to favor the original version that we fell in love with, but I think it was more than that.

Let me start by going over what I did like about the film. There were some good performances. Pablo Álvarez Rubio certainly made a good Renfield, although he took the character in a much more extravagant direction than Dwight Frye. Lupita Tovar made for an enjoyable Eva (this film’s version of Mina). And Carlos Villarías makes an adequate Count, even if I did think he looked like the son of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee with a dash of Nicholas Cage thrown in, still I found him lacking in the Lugosi charm. But casting-wise I felt most of the good performances were made by the tourists and villagers at the beginning of the film, and I particularly liked the wide-eyed frightened helmsman, who becomes the last victim on the cargo ship.

Production-wise, I appreciated some of the script elements retained in this version that were cut from the Lugosi version. It was nice to see exactly how the housekeeper escaped a possible attack from Renfield, and I was glad to see closure brought to the Woman in White subplot, even if it did come at an awkward time dramatically.

I did find it strange that there is footage of the brides of Dracula used from the English version that doesn’t match at all the brides we see a few minutes later, but I can forgive that. We’ll just say the Count has six brides in this version.

No, my biggest problem with Drácula was the pacing. This version is thirty minutes longer than the English version, and it feels like it. One might argue that it’s due to the aforementioned script elements that they kept, but no, it’s mostly due to the director’s slow pans and his need to show every single step as someone crosses a room. This is the same way the Ed Woods of the world pad out a film. Couple that with Eduardo Arozamena’s very stilted way of delivering his lines, and this makes for one very slow moving film. There were also some strange choices made when it came to the composition of some shots, particularly one where several of the actors are obscured by a sofa. On the whole, I found it very hard to remain engaged.

So, let the dissension begin. I was looking for discussion and debate when I decided to take this project to the Internet, so I’m looking forward to hearing what others have to say. I may not have liked it, but I look forward to hearing why others do.

To end on a high note though, there’s a nice anecdote connected with the film in Michael Mallory’s book that I can’t resist repeating here: Apparently, Lupita Tovar got the role of Eva because Universal executive Paul Kohner had fallen madly in love with her and she was to return to Mexico. Creating projects for young Spanish-speaking actors was apparently his ploy to keep her in Hollywood. Apparently, it worked. They were married in 1932 and remained so until his death in 1988. Incidentally, she’s still with us today at age 101, and the DVD I watched, features an interview with her from five years ago, still looking rather lively for a lady in her upper 90s.

This week’s supporting features:

Porky Pig in Paying the Piper (1949)

The Our Gang short Big Ears (1931)

Next week’s film:

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, and Tom Tyler