Saturday, 17 December 2016

BLACK FRIDAY (1940)

Can a transplanted brain retain the memories of its former owner? This was the premise behind Universal teaming up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi for the fourth time in Universal’s low-budget Black Friday. The result is an entertaining though flawed blend of a Warner Brothers gangster picture crossed with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Karloff is Dr Ernest Sovac, an eminent brain surgeon who begins the film about to go to the electric chair for murder. He has remained silent till now but passes a detailed notebook to a journalist he respects in the hope “that it will benefit mankind”. As the newshound reads, we learn that Sovac’s skills were dramatically focused in the service of his best friend, kindly English college professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), run over in the street during a gangsters’ car chase. Sovac decides the only way to save his friend’s life is a revolutionary brain-swap with mobster Red Cannon (also Ridges), the intended victim of the hit-and-run. To add further risk, Sovac learns that Cannon had secreted away half a million dollars in loot. The surgeon falls to temptation, albeit from an altruistic motive of funding a pioneering laboratory. He must somehow access the vestiges of Cannon within Kingsley’s recuperating mind to unlock the cash’s location, without tipping off his friend or Bela Lugosi (as gang boss Eric Mornay) and his vengeful mob.

Originally Karloff and Lugosi were to play Kingsley and Sovac respectively which would have fit them well. Karloff ultimately chose to be the surgeon, a decision that writer Curt Siodmak felt came from fear of failure: “He was afraid of it: there was too much acting in it”. This now had consequences for the rest of the principal casting. Kingsley’s tweedy academic very much required a distinctly British actor’s style, yet with the versatility to double convincingly as a contrasting streetwise New Yorker. For all his undoubted talent, Lugosi’s inflexible Hungarian accent made this an unworkable trade of parts, thus relegating him once again to becoming a poor support to Karloff’s status and denying them any shared scenes despite being billed prominently together. His Marnay is a menacing mob boss but it is a dull waste of his personality that could have been taken by any contract player of heavies. Sovac would have been perfect for him. The film did at least give Lugosi his singular chance to work on film for director Arthur Lubin, an old friend from their days in the Broadway theatre.

On the upside, Kingsley/Cannon became a terrific gift for relative unknown Stanley Ridges, a former Broadway musical theatre actor whose cultured voice was applied easily to character parts in sound movies. The dual role showcases him to striking effect, especially the first time he morphs from the professor’s mild whimsy to raising his head sans glasses as the hardened street-punk Cannon. No make-up aids necessary – just good old-fashioned performance skills. Hans Salter’s unsubtle ‘da-da-daa’ music sting is superfluous.

Over the course of the film, the burden of containing two diametrically-opposing personalities starts to unravel Kingsley, hardly surprising considering that by night his criminal half is systematically killing off his old gang. Meanwhile as Cannon he has picked up with his former squeeze Sunny (Anne Nagel) who is in league with Marnay for a share of the missing dough. The pressure is on for Sovac as well who accidentally reveals his knowledge of the money but makes himself indispensable enough for Cannon to agree to a split of the proceeds.

As the hunt for the money intensifies, the leaden dialogue in the script stands out: “Ernst, something’s happened to my mind,” whimpers Kingsley. Co-writing with Eric Taylor, Curt Siodmak would soon fare much better at transformational horror with his iconic screenplay for The Wolf Man (1941). Universal had only equipped Lubin with an 18-day filming schedule to go with the lack of budget, so any wrinkles had to be hastily covered rather than ironed out for speed of delivery.

The ending generates a little supernatural heat though, whereby after dispatching Marnay and securing the cash, the seemingly-restored professor is lecturing before his college class when he is suddenly besieged by the spinning spectres of Red’s victims while a police siren wails portentously. Echoing the personal repercussions upon Frankenstein’s scientist for his blasphemous meddling, Sovac’s daughter (rather than wife), Anne Gwynne is almost strangled by her husband’s creation until this Cannon is silenced by Karloff’s gunshot. We then return to the journalist who now understands the incredible story he has in his possession…


As expected, upon release the critics focused mainly on the bravura work by Ridges. Karloff and Lugosi would reunite again later that year in the more deliberately comic You’ll Find Out for RKO. Arthur Lubin also found a new lease of life in comedy by firstly directing Abbott and Costello in their smash-hit Buck Privates (1941) and their next four films. He then discovered the very lucrative possibilities in anthropomorphised animals as director and profit-participant in Universal’s 1950s Francis the Talking Mule series and TV’s Mr Ed in the Sixties.

Friday, 16 December 2016

DR CYCLOPS (1940)

After the short-lived success of using Technicolor in Warner Brothers’ horror films Dr X (1932) such as Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), it was another seven years before a major studio attempted the format again. In 1940 Paramount released Dr Cyclops, a science-fiction horror movie where the colour format was treated with care as part of a decent budget. Director Ernest P. Schoedsack reteamed with Merian C Cooper, his producing partner on King Kong (1932) to ensure high quality and elaborate special effects in the tale of a group of researchers and civilians miniaturised by a mad scientist in the Amazon jungle. Even the co-producer Dale Van Every had an esteemed pedigree as an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (on 1937’s Captains Courageous).

The title of Dr Cyclops does not quote the notorious monster of Greek mythology mindlessly. Tom Kilpatrick’s script is a modern fantasy re-telling of the battle of wits between Odysseus and his crew and the giant cyclops Polyphemus who holds them prisoner in his cave in a far-away land. In the film, a seemingly benign scientist Dr Thorkel (Albert Dekker) is experimenting with a new source of radium he has been mining in his camp deep in the Amazon. He raves about his findings to his associate Dr Mendoza (Paul Fix) while a splendidly lurid green glow bathes them. Thorkel is already an intriguing figure. Dekker’s shaven head and coke-bottle glasses were said to be an imitation of the WWII Japanese troops in the Pacific. With his ungainly frame clothed in a rumpled linen suit and the soft beguiling calmness to his voice, a subtler comparison might also be a friendly mole. This impression is soon dispelled though as he cold-bloodedly murders his colleague in the light of his powerful radium beam invention, radiating Mendoza’s face into a ghastly luminous skull.

Thorkel then sends a message to esteemed colleagues back home to come and see him. The party is made up of three scientists: the clinical Dr Bullfinch, Charles Halton before his noted work in To Be or Not to Be (1942) and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Janice Logan’s Dr Mary Robinson and a rakish mineralogist, Dr Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley). Accompanying them are Victor Killian (Steve Baker) who wangles passage with them in return for the use of his mules and Frank Yaconelli as their whimsical Peruvian guide Pedro.

Killian suspects that Thorkel has found a radium mine and wants a piece of the action. When they arrive, Thorkel is cagey about his work to begin with. He had Pedro procure large numbers of cats, dogs and chickens for his work which are never seen again. In secret, his experiments with radium have resulted in miniaturising Pedro’s horse to a few inches in size. The able trick photography for this is an introduction to the far greater technical skills to come.

After the team find pitchblende samples that indicate the presence of valuable radium, they snoop in Thorkel’s laboratory. His anger on discovering them flares and then subsides, appearing contrite at his initial secretiveness. He disarms their suspicions with a soothing invitation to see his Condenser contraption. They crowd into the small room whereupon he locks them in and blasts them with his ray that shrinks them to thirteen inches in height. Now they will become his first human test subjects to be studied like freak lab rats – if he can get his hands on them all. 

Incidentally, I couldn’t help noticing that whilst almost all the hero team have fashioned togas out of cloth (for some reason their clothes didn’t shrink with them), Pedro has made himself what looks like a nappy.

What sells Dr Cyclops is the superb process photography by two-time Oscar winner Farcio Edouart and W. Wallace Kelley. Assisted by Gordon Jennings’ photographic effects, they convey well the scale differences between the shrunken team and the suddenly threatening everyday world around them.  Hans Drier and his art department craft excellent oversize props and furniture on the sets for the actors to interact with such as an enormous book, a locked door and a huge shotgun they try to aim at Thorkel. At times, back projection is also used with skill to blend large images in the background with the imperilled group in the foreground, or in reverse so that footage of a looming alligator is on our side against back-projected film of the fleeing group.  

The money-shot of the movie is a real feat of special effects, all the more impressive for being rendered practically, in-camera, decades before post-production CGI. To show Thorkel taking measurements of the miniature Dr Bullfinch, the effects team display a back-projection of Dekker acting with Halton before him (his eyeline well judged) and then introduce a huge mechanical arm from screen right, flesh-toned and convincingly rendered in detail, to grasp the doctor and relate to him in the same continuous take. It’s a highly intricate set-piece of multiple elements and works extremely well.

As Thorkel measures Bullfinch’s new vital statistics, his prey sees the classical allusion on offer, describing the tiny troupe as “prisoners in Cyclops’ cave”. The insane biologist takes umbrage at the personal reference to his poor eyesight, so unfortunately for Bullfinch he’s chirped his last. Thorkel kills him with a giant swab soaked in poison. Pedro buys it later from a shotgun blast by his employer, falling like a child’s doll into the river.

The remaining threesome must use all their professional smarts to negotiate the super-size terrain, complete with a hostile bear, a tiger and the aforementioned alligator. As Thorkel flounders in pursuing them, he gloatingly informs them that they can’t hide for long as they will soon return to normal size. He credits them with too little ingenuity though, forgetting that intelligence is not reduced along with stature, and gets the shaft courtesy of a plunge down his zealously-guarded mine.

Dr Cyclops is a fun and imaginative mixture of science-fiction ideas and a touch of the macabre, handsomely-mounted with a rare wealth of resources. The visuals are supported by a playful music score from Gerard Carbonara, Albert Hay Malotte and Ernst Toch that add to the lush fantasy production values. Reminiscent of a sumptuous Disney adaptation of Jules Verne, it is hard to believe this little Technicolor gem is from the same era as the dark, dour monochrome cheapies audiences were mainly given. If only Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had been showcased with such means.

The religio-philosophical dimension of suddenly having smaller dimensions would be elegantly examined by Richard Matheson’s literate The Incredible Shrinking Man in 1957, while the possibilities of scientific advancement through miniaturisation were lavishly imagined later in Fantastic Voyage (1967).

Thursday, 15 December 2016

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE (1940)

During the Second World War, ‘Mr Murder’ aka Tod Slaughter reverted from films back into touring British theatres in blood-curdling sensationalist horror plays such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper. His last movie of Victorian melodrama before the war effort took industry precedence was Crimes at the Dark House (1940), an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White tailored to focus around Slaughter’s ripe homicidal whirlwind.

Once more Slaughter was directed and co-produced by his long-term business partner George King and gives us the same relishable tour de ham of Grand Guignol gloating as in 1936’s Sweeney Todd and Face at the Window (1939). This time, the pretext for his dastardly crime-wave is impersonation of a fortune inheritor in Australia whom he wastes no time in dispatching brutally with a hammer and chisel to the head before sailing to England to take advantage.

Once arrived at the English estate, he can’t wait to get his hands on the proceeds. First though he must negotiate those who would have known what the real Sir Percival Glyde looked like. He checks that the staff only remember him from childhood and rewards himself with a self-satisfied smoothing of his curled moustache, the cad, but then is forced to meet his lawyer Merriman (David Kier) to go over his accounts, whose memory may well be better. Fortunately, not so. However the news is not all good; the ignoble noble discovers that far from inheriting instant wealth, he has been saddled with huge debts on a property that is mortgaged. Curses! Guess it’s time to find another method of easy money – and if necessary kill anyone who stands in the way.

Meanwhile, Glyde has an eye and a lot more besides for the ladies. He takes a shine to the curvy, ambitious maid Jessica and transfers her to chambermaid duties: It may not be high art but H.F. Maltby's dialogue rings the bells of villainous intent loudly and Slaughter tugs the bell-rope with caddish glee every time. “You’re a delightful little baggage” he gleams at the dark duties he has in mind as her new master. Fans of unreconstructed swinish sexism will have a ball with his quotable one-liners. “The woman is mad. She should be in an asylum” he roars when faced with Hay Petrie’s Dr Isidor Fosco bringing him another remnant of the real Glyde’s legacy: a funereal lady, Jane Catherick, with whom he sired a child, Anne, who now resides in the actual asylum yet seems to roam about the property as a spectral Woman in White.

Since Percival gives her short shrift, Fosco plots with her behind his back to restore her honour and unmask him as the evident charlatan he is. This introduces Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriott) and her gasping, irascible hypochondriac Uncle Frederick (a slightly frenzied David Horne). Laura is keen to marry Geoffrey Wardwell’s Paul Hartwright, yet we find that she is betrothed to the original Sir Percival. Marriott and Wardwell’s love scenes have that tiresomely fey quality of overwrought melodrama, which is thankfully steamrolled by Slaughter’s masculine juggernaut of dastardly plotting. Fosco schemes with Laura and her formidable sister Marion (Hilary Eaves) somewhat confusingly to have Anne and Laura impersonate each other as part of unravelling Glyde’s progress. The evil gold-digger meantime looks forward to marrying into Laura’s cash whilst secretly dipping into Jessica’s resources on the side. “I’ve certain…instructions to give her”, he gleams with ominous appetite.

We can either try to stay on board the heroes’ wagon of dull good intention or instead hitch a much more fun ride on the Glyde stagecoach, a savagely-whipped beast galloping through all obstacles. The naïve Jessica is convinced that she will marry him to become Lady Glyde – until he strangles her in the garden as “a bride of death” with his signature throaty chuckle. Margaret Yarde as cynical housekeeper Mrs Bullen is also throttled and dumped in the lake for knowing too much.

Good thing Percival has succeeded in marrying Laura otherwise there’d soon be no staff left. Never one to miss a trick, he tries to persuade Laura to unwittingly sign her fortune over to him. This is foiled by her strength of character despite his vain attempt to impose a traditionally unquestioned male dominance over her (a central theme it seems in Collin’s novel). Denied one path, he appears to take out his evil energies in other alarming ways on their wedding night: “Wenches like you want taming badly – properly taming!” he menaces. Mercifully we are spared what happens next – the consensual clashing of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara this is not.

As the movie builds toward a climax in the church bell-tower, a drippy tackle by Paul fazes Glyde not a bit. The exposed knight then puts the camp in campanology by asphyxiating Fosco with the bell-rope, savouring his ghoulish chimes with: “You always said you were a teetotaller. You’re going to have a nice drop – now”. Ultimately his killing spree and trailer-lines are curtailed by the very flames he uses to burn the damning evidence against him.

Crimes in the Dark House has such over-the-top enthusiasm for the genre that it qualifies as a knowing horror-comedy. The sizzle of Slaughter’s steak is an acquired taste some may find over-cooked but if you’re in the mood for committed murder mayhem, it is infectious fun.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

SPOOKS RUN WILD (1941)

After Abbott and Costello's haunted-house comedy Hold That Ghost (1941) became a smash hit, the East Side Kids released the similar Spooks Run Wild with Bela Lugosi later that year. It was the Kids’ seventh film and also Lugosi’s second in his infamous Monogram Nine millstones for producer Sam Katzman and is entertainingly appalling in a manner worthy of Ed Wood. The director was the journeyman Phil Rosen who made some of the Charlie Chan sequels, The Man with Two Lives (1942) and Return of the Ape Man (1944)

Unbelievably, the writer of the thuddingly unsubtle script was two-time Academy Award nominee Carl High Noon Foreman who easily made the list of Hollywood’s top screenwriters in the late Forties and an altogether more tragic list, that of the infamous Hollywood Ten blacklisted after Senator McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) communism hearings.  Foreman had been a communist back in the 1930s and despite insisting that he left years ago in disillusionment, was courageous enough to resist informing on his fellow professionals. As an unfriendly witness, he spent six years frozen out of the business, at least gaining Oscar nomination recognition for his 1952 High Noon script, and was forced to leave for England where he earned a second successful career as a producer.

Back in 1941, there was little kudos for corralling the wild steers of the East Siders within the micro-budgeted confines of a Monogram screenplay. After some clumsy scene-setting stock footage of New York, the surly Kids are manhandled by two cops into the hands of Jeff Dixon (Dave O’Brien reprising his guardian role in all but name from their earlier films). “They may be underprivileged but they sure ain’t underdeveloped” observes one cop. He can say that again – these teen-playing scoundrels would go on in a similar vein, later as the Bowery Boys for almost another two decades.

Huntz Hall, who was in the original Dead End Kids but had only reunited with them under the East Side Kids label since Bowery Blitzkreig (1941) is firmly front and centre as Glimpy, the toughs’ resident beany-hatted dim-bulb. He is disappointed that they’re bound for a summer camp and not Reform School  - similar to the scuppered premise that opened Boys of the City. In spite of his nickname due to a Germanic-looking nose, Huntz was actually of Irish stock, and as the 14th of 16 children in real-life, running with a large gang must have felt like home.  (Incidentally, Hall is immortalised amongst the cultural icons preserved on Peter Blake’s cover for the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper 
album -  look two to the left of Bob Dylan on the back right).

The Kids’ school bus pulls into the burg of Hillside where the first hilariously duff note of the movie is struck by the announcer over the diner’s radio, who cuts into the quaint instrumental program to tell the Kids that the infamous Monster Killer is on the loose (so evil he requires two adjectives), intones flatly that he’s committed “three inhuman murders” and then blithely returns listeners to the twee music.

Our cup of crapness runneth over in fact as this sequence is quickly followed by my favourite, a corker of inept brilliance. Lugosi drives up to greet the gas-station attendant displaying his polished persona of urbane, evening-suited gentleman. He is partnered by Luigi the mute dwarf (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Angelo Rossitto) and towing a loaded trailer of three coffins to imprint a cunning cheapo Dracula production value by association. As he drives off with directions for the abandoned Billings House, the attendant shows a stupefying ability to make connections of his own when the next customer turns up, immediately identifying the driver as the eminent Dr Van Grosch (East Side Kids regular Dennis Moore) and calmly informing him that the last customer was his nemesis, the Monster Killer. “This knowledge you possess. You’ve gained it all from that book?” asks the wooden Doctor with considerably less interest than seems appropriate. After all, either the attendant is a remarkable clairvouyant who’s wasted pumping gas or he’s somehow gone meta and is reading from a bound version of the atrocious script.

Once installed at the camp, the boys’ give each other plenty of ribbing repartee as they go along with some bad gags:

“How can you read in the dark?”
“I went to night school”

It isn’t long before they go out and get themselves lost in the local cemetery after Leo Gorcey’s Muggs tries to sneak out on a date with the diner waitress. Unfortunately, instead of helping them with directions, the gravedigger prefers to let them have a shotgun blast that wounds Peewee (David Gorcey, brother of Leo). This employee clearly needs supervision as Lugosi himself has also nearly fallen victim to his overexcited shoot-first policy. The Kids help poor Peewee to the nearest house which just happens to be occupied by Nardo (Lugosi). He offers to host them and treat Peewee rather than call the police, providing the boys leave their friend alone with the older stranger. Having no choice (where’s that guardian when you really need him?), they casually agree.

To be fair to Lugosi, he amiably submits to these young hooligans’ tomfoolery like an indulgent uncle babysitting naughty kittens for an afternoon. All bonhomie, he savours a line playfully where he can. “Good-niiiight”, he lingeringly teases Sunshine Sammy’s Scruno upon leaving the Kids to their bed-time. Never ones to miss a mark with his guard down, the suspicious boys launch at Lugosi with an in-jokey: “Okay, Mr Horror Man!” Well I say Lugosi, but it’s an obvious stunt double replacing him in the brawl. Credit Monogram with permitting the fading Hungarian star to retain an atom or two of his fast-eroding professional dignity.

The Kids lock Nardo in a room, yet such is the plot’s shoddiness (or his dexterity) that he emerges straight away to continue terrorising them individually. Luigi then torments Scruno with an overhead toy spider on a wire and then a floating skull, all the horrific power of a child’s crib mobile. In this last act, Nardo’s milk of human kindness appears to sour. Our inner horror-hound howls as he switches to that trademark Hard Hypnotic Stare mode that signifies he means grim business - at least he would do if the cinematographer hadn’t bathed his close-up with a slapdash wash instead of any subtlety of light around his eyes.

The clunking becomes literal when two suits of perambulating armour are revealed to contain Gorcey and one of his pals. Meanwhile – remember the Doctor? Finally he arrives on the scene, having presumably been behind the wheel of the world’s slowest car to get there so late in the movie. It is then, following a supreme burst of non-threatening threat from him toward the boys’ Nurse Linda (Dorothy Short) that we discover he was the Monster Killer all along. 

It is left to Gorcey to unload a terribly unwieldy sack of high-speed exposition to fill in the ramshackle hick police posse and the audience. Lugosi’s Nardo, as his name and quasi-supernatural extrications hinted, was in reality a magician needing somewhere private to practise. We are then treated to a little vanishing act epilogue of his impromptu stage show, finishing with Gorcey snuggling up unwittingly to Scruno.

Cuddling your fellow gang member is the lightest punishment dished out by Spooks Run Wild, truly shocking in quality not horror content, but for all that an amusing ride in an inadvertently collapsing jalopy with a rare, good-natured Lugosi character for a companion.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

BOYS OF THE CITY (1940)

Another long-running comedy team who mixed humour and horror, albeit a group of greater size and through varying incarnations, was the Dead End Kids. This was the first umbrella name for a tearaway gang of youths who underwent three separate group names and member changes across twenty one years for multiple studios between 1937 and 1958. They were contracted to United Artists, Warner Brothers, Universal and Monogram (at one point working for Universal and Warners at the same time under two different series names). If this wasn’t enough to make your head spin, their raucous behaviour on-set was and frequently landed them in trouble.

The Dead End Kids met and took their name as the cast of Dead End (1935) a Broadway play by social conscience playwright Sidney Kingsley that focused on street kids in slum housing projects and their immersion in a life of crime. Amongst the boys hired were Leo and David Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsly and Gabriel Dell. Most of them came from showbiz backgrounds, the Gorceys for example being a vaudeville family. The diminutive but fierce Leo Gorcey wasn’t originally destined for an actor’s life,  but prompted by his brother he swapped plumbing for the theatre and emerged as the leader of the gang from then onwards. When the play’s two-year hit run warranted a film version, director Wiliam Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn realised their best bet was to transplant the Broadway cast. and all but David Gorcey were signed up by United Artists for the Dead End film in 1937.

Although the gang had two-year contracts, they caused such undisciplined havoc during filming that an exasperated Wyler off-loaded them to Warners. Inadvertently this was the perfect move as their new employer was the home of the tough crime picture. Warners had initially rebranded them as the Crime School Kids (Crime School being their first film for the studio) but the new name never caught on. Where they did score was by sharing screen time and cramming into poster space with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) as Catholic priest Pat O’Brien struggles to keep them away from Cagney’s bad role model.

Early in their run of six Warners films, the Dead End kids minus Jordan and Leo Gorcey were loaned out to Universal to spark off a new series which confusingly kept the Dead End Kids name and added the Little Tough Guys, overlapping their series with the other studio. After Jordan and Gorcey were freed of their Warners obligation, the whole team was bought out by Monogram and under the new name of the East Side Kids they made 22 films between 1940 and 1945.

The East Side Kids films began to dabble with other genres in their second outing. The first to be spook-wise as well as street-wise was Boys of the City (1940), a lame affair whose only real spirits are in the enlivening boys themselves. The director Joseph H. Lewis would go on to one of Bela Lugosi’s better pictures The Invisible Ghost (1941) and here does his best to tick off the horror clichés scattered through William Lively’s poor script.

As an alternative to doing time, the petty crime Kids are sent to upstate New York’s Adirondack mountains for fresh air and the good influence of outdoor activities. Instead they and their guardian Knuckles Dolan (Dave O’Brien) are landed in worse jeopardy than in the city after their car breakdown gets them hospitality at the ancestral home of Forrest Taylor’s bent Judge Parker. He’s been indicted for bribery and intends to hide out from mobster reprisals that threaten him and his niece Inna Gest (an apt name for comedy). Lively’s plot lives up to his name only in the sense that he overloads the Judge with too much back-story. Not only has Parker fallen foul of the mob, he’s accused by one of his men of embezzling from his niece, and also of being a love-rat to his late wife by their loyal, hard-faced spinster housekeeper Agnes (Minerva Urecal) – in a character makeup and demeanour that was already becoming an over-familiar horror archetype.

The characters of the Kids are allowed a little breathing room for distinction. Jordan’s Danny shows a compassionate side in private. Gorcey comes out eternally swinging as the punchy wise-guy: “Ah you can’t scare us with that dribble”. He also gets a moment of genre awareness in his posturing when he fronts “What’s the Thin Man got that I ain’t got?” (In the credits Jordan and Gorcey are clearly marked as featured head-liners separate to the main group)

The new member of the re-christened group is Sunshine Sammy (Ernest) Morrison, who had begun his career as part of another famous screen bunch of youngsters, Hal Roach’s Our Gang, after short comedies with Harold Lloyd and then Snub Pollard. As the token young black man he is of course given the onerous task of being the go-to, wide-eyed scaredy-cat. Like Manton Moreland in King of the Zombies, his role is the poison chalice of a decent share of screen time in return for a jaw-droppingly indecent quantity of racist dialogue. “Man, I sho’ do miss that ole plantation,” he witters plaintively at one point, later shoving his head joyfully into a watermelon after singing its praises.

The tropes of old horror movies tumble out with the grim predictability of the cook victim who falls into the room face down upon a door being opened; there’s a white-sheeted fake ghost, secret panels and the unmasking of the real, utterly non-supernatural culprit in the Judge’s ranks.

Over time as their screen personas developed, the gang softened from the edgy, serious young career criminals of Angels with Dirty Faces to a more family friendly semi-juvenile comedy team, a quality that was exploited the more they merged rambunctious humour with horror. The epilogue here where a thawed-out Agnes greets them with surprise chocolate cake plunges them right back into the short pants of innocent childhood, denuded of all that hard-earned street cred.

Boys of the City is very much a tepid gangster crime piece leadened by clumsy exposition and only serves as plate-spinning (or smashing in their case) before the more defined horror work the Kids did with the immortal Lugosi...

Monday, 12 December 2016

CREEPS (1956)

                                                     
   As mentioned earlier, for their declining years with Columbia the Three Stooges’ producer-director Jules White released new films reusing earlier scenes with crude obviousness to fulfil his quota. In the case of their last horror-comedy combination Creeps (1956), the recycling transplanted roughly two-thirds of the entire scenes from 1949’s The Ghost Talks book-ended by new footage and a little cunning re-dubbing. The premise for returning us to that haunted house this time is that now the trio have three children, (themselves in baby outfits), who are as quarrelsome and violent as their parents. The only humorous aspect is Moe’s disturbing enthusiasm for a bedtime story “with a lot of killings and a lot of murders in it so we can sleep real good!” To pacify this ugly brood, their parents recall their time as removal men.

There’s no need to revisit the plot except where it differs from the original film. In this version the Lady Godiva/Peeping Tom sub-plot is cut out; the possessed suit of armour has new lines voiced by Phil Arnold identifying himself as Sir Tom, a brave knight afraid of unscrupulous antique dealers selling him off. The Stooges of course ignore his appeal to their cost when the suit defends itself with a sword, running riot and slicing into Moe’s trousers as he cowers in fear. There is another new scene intercut where Shemp almost gets it in the neck from a guillotine. Back in the kiddies’ bedroom, they still won’t sleep after this story so what do their dads do? They pull out hammers and hit their kids with them (reusing the three NBC chimes audio gag). Although this reads like a BBFC transcript of cuts in a 1980’s British Video Nasty, fortunately this is pure slapstick – although you could extrapolate future serial killer possibilities from such an upbringing.

A more troubling real-life postscript was that after shooting in this period for the following year’s releases, in November 22nd 1955 the Three Stooges’ line-up suffered another tragedy when Shemp Howard died of a heart attack coming home in a cab from a boxing match. He had only agreed to fill in temporarily for the ailing Curly with some initial reluctance but had stayed loyally with the boys for eight years and 76 of their shorts. The kinder option to disband their act after 21 years of gradually lowering standards was not open to them since they still owed Columbia four more shorts from their contract with Shemp. They had to find a replacement to at least cover for his absence, which led to the recruiting of ‘Fake Shemp’, actor Joe Palma, who doubled as the real Shemp filmed from the back to complete films such as Rumpus in the Harem and Commotion on the Ocean.

The Three Stooges were far from finished though. Seeking a permanent third Stooge they even considered Manton Moreland who made Monogram’s slapdash King of the Zombies tolerable (see my review 5/12). His energy combined with the ethnic diversity would have made interesting refreshment but the studio insisted on an in-house contracted artist. They settled for Joe Besser with whom they made another 16 shorts for Columbia. These proved to be the death-knell for the ‘brand’ in their current form.  After the Stooges’ contract failed to be renewed in 1957, they appeared to be all washed-up.

It was the expanding television medium, that perceived threat to cinema, that ironically gave the Stooges a new lease of life the following year, being a natural home for small-scale comedy and a secondary outlet for the vast stockpile of 190 shorts in the Columbia vault. TV saved many an aging and flailing comedy act such as Abbott and Costello and for the Stooges the new audience of children reactivated their live appeal. To capitalise on the new demand, they recruited Joe DeRita whose head was close-cropped to resemble more the hugely popular Curly, and thus his new moniker became ‘Curly Joe’.

Throughout the 1960s the Three Stooges remade themselves as big box-office live performers and this revitalised appeal spun into a series of features such as The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962), cameoing in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and that same year in Sinatra and Martin’s quasi-Rat Pack western comedy Four for Texas. In 1965 they were able to cover their advancing age by filming colour slapstick sequences to bolster the animated The New Three Stooges whilst lending their voices to the characters.  By 1969, they were filming for Kook’s Tour, a proposed series of international travelogue-based sitcom shows. However Larry suffered the first of three incapacitating strokes, passing away in January 1975. Moe joined him in March, a victim of lung cancer, followed by Joe Besser in March 1988 and Joe DeRita in 1993.


Though their comedy-horror films were mostly shot during their downward slide in quality, the Three Stooges have retained a lasting screen immortality as one of the greatest comedy teams, allowing their best work to be constantly played on American TV and for home collectors on DVD.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES (1940)

Following the success of The Invisible Man Returns, director Joe May reunited with his leading cast members Vincent Price and Nan Grey, along with supporting performers Cecil Kellaway and Alan Napier, for Universal’s period drama The House of the Seven Gables (1940). The source was a Nathaniel Hawthorne Gothic novel published in 1851, containing the central storyline of a supernatural curse befalling generations of the New England Pyncheon family in their house purchased from the trickery of their ancestor Colonel Pyncheon upon one Matthew Maule in the 1650s. Maule had been a rumoured witchcraft devotee and before being executed for a framed murder aims a chilling oath at Pyncheon that “God has given him blood to drink!” Pyncheon is found dead on the last day of his house’s completion on the land, blood dripping from his mouth. The action then moves forward to skulduggery reflected in his 1828 descendants.

The novel was partly inspired by a demonic real-life connection with Hawthorne’s own ancestors who were involved in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. He subsequently kept the location for his book. For this film translation (the second after a lost 1910 Edison Company version), the setting was retained but the supernatural curse element was restricted to the page-turning prologue. The unfolding Greek Tragedy pitting brother against brother for the sake of greed is compelling enough without it in the hands of a fine cast and sensitive direction.

In the opening scene, we are shown the contrast between the smug Jaffrey (George Sanders channelling his oily languid Jungle Book and All about Eve arrogance) and Price as his warm-hearted, musical artist sibling Clifford. Jaffrey is obsessed with a long-rumoured fortune allegedly buried in the house. Clifford dismisses the myths and is impatient to sell the property so debts incurred by their father (a disappointingly weak Gilbert Emery) can be paid off and he can move with his cousin Hepzibah to New York. She is played outstandingly by Margaret Lindsay, whose English accent was so convincing when she began her career that she hid her native Iowa roots behind a fake British biography and bagged a role in Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (1933) over at Fox. She is superb in a demanding role requiring a marked change of character over time.

The already stormy early relationship between the brothers isn’t helped when Clifford is angry that their father cannot bring himself to sell their birth-right. He goes too far in accusing the old man of being “chained to the poverty of your traditions”, causing the enraged elder Pyncheon to collapse and die of a congenital throat-constriction far more dangerous than any paranormal family inheritance. 

This becomes the turning point as Jaffrey seizes on the opportunity to claim the house by implicating Clifford as culpable. “Murder”, he utters with cold definition. Clifford goes berserk, launching himself at Jaffrey with the fateful “If killing a money-mad fool is murder - then yes!” This comes back to haunt him during a trial so clinical that the jury doesn’t even need to retire to find him guilty.

From Clifford’s prison term onward, the story takes its greatest departure from Hawthorne’s novel, tagging a sub-plot of social reform onto Matthew, a descendant of Maule’s, who becomes his cell-mate on a disturbance charge as an Abolitionist – (Dick Foran, also in 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand). This sows the seeds of a social as well as private conscience in the film that returning writer Lester Cole felt strongly from the shadows cast by Nazism in this period. Jaffrey’s capitalist ruthlessness is woven into the theme as he and his shifty cohort Deacon Foster (Tower of London’s Miles Mander) have been investing the cause’s money in a slave-ship of all things. Clifford’s seventeen years in prison come to an end in 1868, three years after Lincoln’s assassination, so there is plausible justification for this compassionate struggle to be a topical issue.

Our sympathies are appealed to even more powerfully in how Clifford’s absense has impacted on Hepzibah. Lindsay is highly affecting in portraying her former radiant optimism withered into a grave repressed husk, her home shuttered-up and then reduced to serving as a trading store to make ends meet. May’s sensitive direction is also clear in serving Price’s emotional return; he tugs at the heartstrings upon seeing himself greyer in his bedroom mirror, feeling the moth-eaten damage to his clothes and then coping with the overwhelming and moving reunion with Hepzibah.

The film is not simply awash with doom-bringing though. Alan Napier impresses even more with his pre-Batman film versatility as the bewhiskered waggish postmaster Fuller. Cecil Kelloway as Philip Barton makes a genial family barrister and Foran’s guise as Mr Holgrave under Hepzibah’s roof gives a pleasant bulwark against the evil machinations of Jaffrey. He is lit up in turn by Nan Grey’s lovely innocence as distant cousin Phoebe Pyncheon.

There’s a palpable sense of a net closing in during the third act as Jaffrey circles the house more hungrily at his brother’s return. Holgrave/Maule spreads rumours to the newspaper for Jaffrey’s ears that Clifford has been scouring the property for the fabled treasure. Watch Sanders’ delicious cough of faux-unconcern on his “Very amusing” at the gleaming possibility of half a million dollars to be had. The chickens come home to roost in the form of the enraged fellow Abolitionists he has swindled, allowing Clifford and Hepzibah the satsfying revenge of seeing Jaffery fall victim to the very avarice he benefitted from all those years ago.

The House of the Seven Gables is ultimately not a horror film in the traditional sense: there are no explicit spectral visitations haunting the family, nothing lurid or exploitative in the on-screen deaths. Nevertheless it works very well as a gripping and atmospheric drama drenched with ugly hidden motives, guilt, redemption and cold justice and is a credit to the restraint and taste Universal could be capable of in the genre.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

SPOOKS (1953)

(Viewed in 2D)

Into the 1950s, The Three Stooges’ producer-director Jules White was working at maximum efficiency on their behalf at least in terms of quantity rather than quality. Reputedly he could even cobble together an entire short film in just one day by brazenly cannibalising footage from other films and then shooting connective scenes, often featuring the same actors, studio sets and costumes to cover the gaps. As one might imagine, this only leads to impressive output numbers, indicating a dearth of decent material - which will become glaringly apparent in Creeps (1956).

Before we get to that final horror-comedy of the team, White did occasionally make an entire film from scratch and in the case of 1953’s Spooks he had a very good reason. 1953 was the year that the 3D format became a big box-office craze. Edwin H. Land’s particular version of 3D (or stereoscopic vision to be exact) was pioneered back in 1929 as an invention to dim overly-bright car headlights. It used a layer of filtering crystals that only allowed certain light waves to pass through. He discovered that his technique could also create three-dimensional film images by superimposing two images onto the same screen via separate polarising filters and displayed by two projectors. Special eyeglasses featured two subtly different polarising filters that gave the viewer a slightly varying perspective on the scene through each eye, which appears to give what’s on the screen the impression of depth and solid form. When 3D took off in the 1950s, films were either made in this process or filmed using the alternate Natural Vision method.

The timing for 3D exploitation seemed perfect as cinema attendances were gradually being eroded - by home television entertainment and the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 (United States vs Paramount Pictures, Inc.) that broke the monopoly stranglehold of distribution by the major Hollywood studios, ordering them to divest themselves of their cinema ownerships that forced guaranteed block bookings of their products around the country.  The first colour feature 3D release to start the 1950s bandwagon was Bwana Devil in November 1952, a man-eating lion adventure with the sensational tagline “A lion in your lap!”

April 1953 was the banner year for the new form. The Three Stooges’ studio Columbia got on board early with the stereoscopic film noir Man in the Dark. Later that month Vincent Price’s world of mannequins burned splendidly in glorious 3D colour (pioneering stereo sound as well)  in Warner Brothers’ House of Wax, followed in May by battling cowboys and Indians spilling out into our popcorn in the siege western Fort Ti directed by the master of cinema gimmicks William Castle. Jules White saw a rising tide of quick profit and quickly rushed into production the world’s first 3D comedy short Spooks, getting it out just a few weeks after this.

Spooks may have broken new ground in comedy presentation but the content by now was largely old-hat. Although White doesn’t recycle footage, he and The Ghost Talks writer Felix Adler contend themselves with reusing Stooges plots instead, albeit starting with the team in a line-up thrusting their disembodied bonces into the audience’s faces. The boys begin as partners in the Super Sleuth Detective Agency whose cynical advertising raises a smirk: “Divorce evidence manufactured to your order”. For some macabre reason their wall boasts an impressive display of medieval torture implements. 

Into the office comes George B. Bopper, a panicking father whose daughter has been missing for twenty-six hours. He arouses the sleeping trio into immediate action and their familiar Deerstalker headgear:

“Gentlemen!”
(All) “Where?”

The Stooges whip up their doorstep pie-giveaway ruse to scope out neighbourhood houses for clues. Their first home visit is a spooky domicile indicated by ghostly sighing wind on the soundtrack. Here is where the guys begin to make use of the stereoscopic in their slapstick, and once they start, it sets off a deluge of point-of-view gags. Moe gives Shemp, or rather us, a two-fingered eye-pop - which noticeably slows down the comic timing.

In the meantime, inside the house, there’s a caged man-in-a-gorilla-suit (Steve Calvert) imprisoned by a mad scientist who is yet another graduate of that medical degree mill, the Van Dyke Beard and Glasses School of Medicine. This is Philip Van Zandt whose huge credit list included earlier better times such as Mr Rawlston in Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Likewise, Tom Kennedy whose characterful pugilist face as his lumbering manservant earned him over 300 screen appearances elsewhere alongside comedy greats like the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy. They have abducted the lovely Mary Bopper (Norma Randall) in order to brain-swap her with said ape, name-checked Kongo after M-G-M’s 1932 jungle horror movie (see my review 22/3).

I wasn’t kidding when I referenced the over-enthusiastic use of the new technology in this short. From here on, engaged in pitch battle with the scientist, a torrent of 3D tools are thrown as if was going out of style (which within a year it would be).  A greater lethal arsenal is launched at our point of view than in Friday the 13th Part 3 - (I counted a hypodermic needle, knife, hatchet, scythe, a flame-thrower, a water-based extinguisher and a pitchfork – take that, Jason Voorhees). And that’s just the adult instruments. Two moments in the melee are interestingly rare, whereby Larry takes Moe’s place in beating up on Shemp for a change who is, come to think of it, markedly more submissive toward his basin-cut bro’ than in the days of The Ghost Talks.

As pies are recruited for the flinging, Moe learns that the white-coated wack job is named after Stevenson’s famous schizoid: “Dr Jeckyl? We must Hyde!”. That gag is worth a flan in the face and by the end of the movie everyone gets one, including us in more ways than one.

Though it was shot in 3D, Spooks is a one-dimensional re-tread of the Stooges’ back catalogue, enlivened only by the crude novelty of in-your-face slapstick. Jules White hastily assembled a second stereoscopic cash-in for the boys, Pardon My Backfire, which came out in August.

By 1954, 3D was no longer all the rage. Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was released this way and The Creature from the Black Lagoon did well enough in the pool to spawn one of its two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) in 3D, yet it proved a brief phenomenon. From a highpoint of over 5000 American cinemas projecting in the format, the demand dwindled partly due to sheer economic inviability. Cinemas had to customise their projectors and pay extra for the two screening prints necessary. Meanwhile, ever on the lookout for the next big thing to tempt Joe Public from their couches, the new widescreen vistas of Cinerama, Fox’s Cinemascope and Paramount’s (short-lived) Vistavision took off, granting viewers a broader canvas requiring less hardware. Spectacle without spectacles.

Incidentally, for technical buffs, Spooks took advantage of widescreen development too as it was the first of their series to be shot using the more cinematic 1:85:1 Columbia house ratio instead of the usual squarer Academy Ratio of 1:35:1.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)

Sequels are a difficult proposition. As we know from the many bad ones that particularly bedevil the horror industry, it can be an excuse for a tacky in-name-only attempt to cash in on a surprise hit – or sail so close to the original plot that it might as well be labelled a remake. A worthwhile sequel has to somehow satisfy two opposing creative forces at the same time, which is why it is so hard to achieve. The music industry calls it ‘the difficult second album’ syndrome: giving the audience more of what they loved about the first release but with enough differences for it to expand on the characters and their world, to be valid and stand alone on its own merits. The films that have managed this are rare. This explains why The Godfather Part II, Aliens and Terminator 2 are quoted so often – there isn’t a lot of competition for the honour among film-makers with the necessary integrity and storytelling talent.

Universal had built up a roster of what we now know as potentially lucrative horror franchises since 1931, (featuring almost of their icons barring The Wolf Man series proper and the later Creature from the Black Lagoon) but they were forced to sit on them during the mid-1930s slump generated by a censorious climate backlash against such material. The studio also suffered damaging losses of almost $2m in 1936 and another million still in 1937. After an enterprising New York cinema owner double-billed Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, the returns were high enough to prompt a full-steam drive into a second horror wave. Inevitably there was a temptation to sacrifice quality for quantity to make up for their lean period. Universal did their best to control this to begin with, producing the excellent Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and then a considered sequel to The Invisible Man.

The Invisible Man Returns seven years in reality after the original but stated as nine in the film, and manages to be a quality follow-on to its predecessor if at times a little predictable in plot. It was written by Lester Cole and the German-born Kurt Siodmak (who would make a stronger mark on the Universal Hall of Fame the next year with his first of The Wolf Man series, birthing their third most popular monster after the Stoker and Shelley gruesome twosome). The director was Joe May, a Viennese early pioneer in German cinema working with such luminaries as Conrad Veidt and Fritz Lang who felt forced to emigrate to the USA, like many creatives, under his homeland’s growing sympathy toward Nazism. May took over from James Whale who superbly directed The Invisible Man and, as we shall see, makes a creditable job of continuing his predecessor’s themes and tone

The story begins below stairs at the impressive home of a Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe whose butler and other staff fret about his impending execution for murdering his brother Michael unless a last-minute reprieve can be sought. His fiancé Helen (a soulful Nan Grey, who’d previously played a victim of Dracula’s Daughter in 1936) appeals to Richard Cobb, Radcliffe’s cousin, who is unable to use his influence in time. Cobb is played by the venerable Sir Cedric Hardwicke, one of the ‘Hollywood Raj’ colony of British ex-patriot actors, a great stage exponents of Bernard Shaw, much loved by the author, whose genre film roles would include Jehan Frollo in Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) as well as more illustrious work such as King Edward IV in Olivier’s 1955 Richard III.

As we become intrigued by how this will involve the eponymous anti-hero (especially since he died in the original film) in comes Dr Frank Griffin, the brother of said vanishing act. He goes to visit Radcliffe in hospital and the next thing we know the police are alerted that the prisoner has escaped, leaving his clothes in his cell. It is a nice touch that so far we are kept from seeing Radcliffe even before he disappears, preserving an air of mystery about him till the end as Whale’s film did This whole set-up is handled with confidence though John Sutton’s Dr Frank is noticeably the only performance lacking conviction.

The first welcome reminder we get of the previous incarnation is in the portrayal of police Inspector Samson, future double Oscar nominee Cecil Kelloway. A memorable aspect of The Invisible Man was in its handling of authority figures, crediting the intrepid senior law enforcement man with intelligence and cunning. Here as well Samson is remarkable for his unruffled composure and foresight on discovering Radcliffe’s inexplicable vanishing - he has already connected the Griffin name with the bizarre circumstances and suspects scientific assistance.

The other aspect of Whale’s film that the sequel pays homage to is the subversive pleasure of seeing blue-collar characters subverting the pomposity of their bosses with rebellious back-talk. These are not ineffectual, forelock-tugging drones but shrewd, energetic representatives and Radcliffe’s Yorkshire family colliery business is the perfect place to see them in action. The miners support their benign owner, not the uppity Willie Spears who’s been suspiciously promoted by Cobb in his absence. When Spears orders the men back to work instead of speculating on Radcliffe’s disappearance, his grandiose swagger is met with the mocking “Keep thi’ wig on, Willie!” and a sarcastic “MISTER Willie Spears” as they disperse. Alan Napier’s Spears is a textured, furtively earthy character turn, doubly impressive for being almost unrecognisable as the same actor who later played Adam West’s dignified Butler Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series.

Hot on the trail, Samson goes to see Dr Griffin, heavily inferring he knows about the continuance of brother Jack (John here)’s invisibility drug experimentation and that he should come clean to avoid the gallows as an accessory. Griffin’s next generation serum here is neatly dubbed Duocane after the fatally unstable Monocane, but in trials with guinea-pigs still demonstrates an alarming tendency to restore visibility followed by a swift demise. As the hunt develops and Helen is freed from police enquiries, Samson patiently puffs on his cigar and teaches one of his underlings: “We can’t expect to catch the quarry if we…shut up the bait”.

Through a forest, swathed in bandages and goggles comes the familiar figure we’ve been waiting for of the Invisible Man himself. The fugitive Radcliffe has been given sanctuary by his colourful employee Old Ben (Forrester Harvey) – but who is the enigmatic actor charged with the peculiar demands of the role? Here, Universal could have had a problem since the part has the unique challenge in cinema horror of being conveyed largely through the spoken word alone. It required someone of enough vocal dexterity and sensitively to embody the disembodied, giving light and shade to compensate for often having no on-screen appearance. Even the awesome Lon Chaney, though bereft of sound for all of his signature roles, had the marvellously pliant instrument of his body to convey character. Claude Rains gave Jack Griffin varying scales of his mellow huskiness to great effect. The studio was fortunate though in having under contract a successor whose cultured vocal versatility would become a distinctive factor in his long horror career: Vincent Price.

Price had just come from his first horror film, 1939’s Tower of London (reviewed earlier) and here replaces Rains admirably to make the role his own. His Sir Geoffrey is a decent man gradually unhinged by the toxicity of the drug, seducing him into increasingly megalomaniac behaviour. His voice denotes tenderness with his fiancé, teases and mocks his enemies amusingly and hardens into a granite edge of bitterness as he pursues vengeance upon them.  When he collars the treacherous Spears, he fakes an ethereal, self-piteous tone posing as the invisible ghost of his dead self hounded till he ‘died in a swamp’. He knows his faithless employee covered for Cobb’s guilt in the murder in return for money and promotion.

The invisibility visual effects are handled once more by John P Fulton, William Hedgcock and Bernard B. Brown, earning Fulton another of his three Academy Award nominations across successive sequels – (Danny Kaye’s 1945 supernatural comedy Wonder Man finally won him the statuette). Although with DVD resolution the fine wires are noticeable that hold up Radcliffe’s floating gun, most of the effect sequences are excellent – in particular the impressive optical view through his empty eye sockets into the inside rear of his bandaged head.

The plot device of clearing his name adds another dimension of audience sympathy and urgency to Radcliffe’s cruelty where the previous film solely made the serum the cause of his homicidal instability. This is not to say he isn’t turning into a hugely dangerous liability for his loved ones. Radcliffe has dinner with Griffin and Helen, and it quickly becomes evident that he is losing his mind to drug-induced delusions of grandeur. After topical ideas about harnessing his power as a weapon of war, his tightly-wrapped body betrays an unravelling mind. Griffin recalls his solemn promise to restrain Radcliffe if the Duocane sent him into a mad frenzy. With declamations such as “It makes me king! I am nemesis!” his friend is a saucepan that has well and truly boiled over, unreachable even to appeals to his friendship. “I don’t want friends! I shall have worshippers and followers!” After they dose his champagne, he pretends to regain his sanity but flees the scene to continue his revenge rampage.

In the manhunt’s building tension, there’s room for a touch more wit at the expense of junior coppers with the obtuse officer insisting: “I’d have to see ‘im before I can believe ‘e’s invisible” before Radcliffe corners Cobb at the colliery with the trussed-up Spears ready to squeal on him. 

Interestingly, in the lead-up to this Radcliffe spits out a surprisingly homophobic allusion to Spears being Cobb’s ‘boyfriend’, a nuance we hadn’t expected. He then strangles Cobb in a coal-cart chugging up the mechanised track that leads to the cuprit making a confession before dying.

Not until the last seconds of the film do we finally see a handsome young Price appear as the serum takes restorative effect. A neat dissolve shot layers in firstly his body map of blood-vessels, then the tendons and musculature until his full human form is revealed to embrace Helen and a hopeful future denied to his predecessor.

The Invisible Man Returns leave enough fresh footprints to make a worthy and entertaining sequel that justifies itself and sets up the franchise for more wthout Price, though he did provide a voice cameo of the role once more just for the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

THE GHOST TALKS (1949)

In May 1946, Curly Howard had fallen victim to the most damaging of the strokes that were jeopardising his health and ability to work as part of the Three Stooges. A hectic partying lifestyle and the stress of a failed marriage the previous October that lasted just three months had both contributed to his decline and this last stroke finished him as an active member of the group.
This forced Moe into asking his older Brother Shemp to return and take Curly’s place, something he was reluctant to do as his solo career was working well. He realised that without him Larry and Moe’s livelihood would be lost, so he stepped into the breach on the understanding that he would cover temporarily till Curly was better. This proved an unrealistic hope as Curly’s condition was terminal, eventually leading to his death in 1952.

Shemp loyally stayed with his brothers as a co-star until 1955, making 76 shorts with them. Along the way, he battled with studio executives over the inherent problem of how much to imitate the priceless loss of Curly versus the benefit of allowing him to develop his own characterisation. Director Edward Bernds recognised that he was a different type of performer and needed this creative freedom, whereas Jules White tried to force him or Moe into comic behaviour that was a pale copy of their beloved brother’s antics. Shemp’s characterful bulldog facial similarity to Moe made it all the more crucial that he differentiate himself and one can see that his persona is more punchy, less subservient to Moe than Curly was.

The Three Stooges’ first horror-comedy combination in their new line-up was The Ghost Talks (1946) directed by Jules White and written by Felix Adler, a staff writer for the boys whose comedy pedigree extended back to supplying the storylines for Harold Lloyd’s Feet First (1930) and Movie Crazy (1932) as well as the screenplays for several Laurel & Hardy features such as Swiss Miss (1938) and A 1940’s A Chump at Oxford. His work here is cloth tailored to a lower standard as by now the Stooges were on their downward trajectory – yet he does raise a couple of grins with surrealist moments.

The trio are removal men tasked with emptying the contents of the creepy Smorgasbord Castle on a stormy night. After Larry receives a crossbow shaft in the butt from a suit of armour, the Stooges discover the suit is possessed by a prissy, plaintive antiquated voice (of actor Phil Arnold): “Please put me down, I beseech you”, he begs in cod olde Englishe dialogue but an American accent. Larry interrogates this unbelievable premise into even greater cultural confusion:

“Sprechen sie Irish?
“Hoot, mon!”

In trying to lower the suit’s raised arm, Larry causes the suit to rumble like a fruit machine before dispensing a flood of coins from its chest. To their even greater surprise, the threesome are told that the suit’s occupant is the famous spirit of Peeping Tom, a medieval tailor from the Middle Ages forever immortalised in the legend of Lady Godiva who rode through Coventry dressed in nothing but her long hair in return for her husband, the Earl of Mercia, abolishing the crippling taxes upon his people. The city’s folk were ordered to stay indoors and with their shutters closed to preserve her challenged modesty. Tom, it is said, drilled a hole in his shutter to get an eyeful of the comely Lady G – although in the film he claims he opened the shutter to better see to thread his needle. Well, it’s no less likely a tale than his supernatural suit possession. He is overjoyed that his thousand year imprisonment is due to end with a rescue by the Lady herself.

The Stooges celebrate with him by opening up a bottle of milk of all things – innocent to the last. The suit spirit drains his glass as if by magic. He dampens the revils somewhat by warning the boys that removing him will have dire consequences. Naturally, they ignore all advice even if from a reputable source, triggering odd events such as a mischievous frog scurrying through Shemp’s pyjamas and a sassy floating skeleton that cues in a Hollywood period in-joke when he introduces himself as Red (voiced by Jules White). “Oh, Red Skeleton!” says Larry. (Another industry gag is the three-toned chimes of NBC’s radio and TV station familiar to audiences of the time when Moe prangs Shemp with a bent safety-pin).

The levitating levity isn’t enough to calm the team’s rising fears as they find the front door is locked. “What we need is a harder head,” observes Shemp and manfully volunteers to be used as a human battering ram - in vain.

The perambulating skull on clockwork feet that we saw in If a Body Meets a Body (1945) makes a fleeting (and flying) return guest appearance with its bat wings terrorising the trio for good measure just before the entrance of the legendary Lady Godiva as foretold. The beautiful Nancy Saunders, still with us and aged 91 as of writing this, rides in on horseback in a bored manner which, intentional or not, does amusingly undercut any bid for a big reveal moment and whisks away the haunted suit.

The Ghost Talks does what it says in the tin, slap-happy rather than slapstick, and cheekily had much of its footage heavily recycled for their 1956 short Creeps.


Monday, 5 December 2016

KING OF THE ZOMBIES (1942)

In the classic Hollywood era, the old-style horror movie zombie (of enslaved voodoo origins) could sporadically be spotted shuffling disconsolately through release schedules, but only as the slave of very low-budget masters. Horror films as a whole had become increasingly marginalised into being the province of the cheaper Poverty Row studios (Republic, PRC, Mascot, Grand National and most infamously Monogram) whose output was less prestigious than the A and B features but slightly better than pure exploitation movies. They managed a precarious living by operating on a micro-budget level that allowed them to turn a profit on the expectedly meagre returns (on average $1,932,12 per film).

Monogram is the most well-known of the Poverty Row studios chiefly because of what became known as the notorious Monogram Nine, a collection of films all starring the impoverished Bela Lugosi such as The Ape (1940)  Black Dragons (1942) and 1944’s Voodoo Man. These may have garnered an ironic fan-base like Ed Wood for their sheer awfulness of execution and yet Tom Weaver points out in the introduction to his book Poverty Row Horrors! that amongst their total roster “a number of them came awfully close to being halfway decent, all they needed was a bit more production polish and a good writer..”. Unfortunately they simply didn’t have the resources.

It was Monogram that figured they could mine the deathly shambling human resource of the living dead in 1941 with King of the Zombies. The producer-director duo of the Halperin Brothers had paved the rotting way first with Bela Lugosi calling the hypnotic shots in the so-so White Zombie (1932) and the cunning cash-in Revolt of the Zombies (1936), both of whom . The most effective recent depiction of a zombie had been Noble Johnson’s very creepy portrayal in The Ghost Breakers as we have discussed (see 4/11 review). Now it was Monogram’s turn to conjur up the voodoo hoodoo, inspired more by Bob Hope comedy quips in tone than haphazard Halperin seriousness.

King of the Zombies was one of the many cheapjack B-pictures churned out by the studio, and at least was helmed by a director whose background in comedy alternated and crossed streams with horror in a busy run through the 1940s. Jean Yarbrough had already ably directed Bela Lugosi in 1940’s The Devil Bat for Monogram competitor PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Here, he does what he can to convince us of a far-flung exotic jungle setting but with no location footage, relying solely on cost-cutting studio interiors. To get us there, we begin in the air as pilot ‘Mac’ McCarthy and his passengers struggle to get their bearings in a heavy storm over the Caribbean. Dick Purcell plays Mac with the All-American stoicism that would see Republic casting him in the Marvel Captain America serial in 1944. Bill Summers (John Archer) and his black servant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) sit helplessly by until he picks up a crackly radio transmission. It’s spoken in a ‘new lingo’ to Mac – a worrying observation to make during WWII considering it’s German.

The party of three crash-land in a clearing on a remote Caribbean island and soon make their way to a forebidding-looking mansion. This is where Moreland begins to command our attention as the comic relief of the movie: his saucer-eyed cowardly jabberings go into reflexive over-drive at any potential fearfulness. Whilst this demeaning racial relegation is always dispiriting and a perennial bug-bear of mine in this period, he does at least gain a lot of screen time as one of the lead protagonists. One just has to ignore such dreadful self-denigrating dialogue as “I thought I was a little off-colour to be a ghost”.

Initially, the trio welcome the arrival of the owner, Viennese émigré Dr Miklos Sangre (Henry Victor), who after descending the staircase in unsettling candle-light from below, genially offers them a warming brandy. He seems charming - although isn’t that surname another word for blood? We shrug and listen as he blithely offers local survival tips: “They say that evil spirits lurk here waiting to prey…on the injured”. Sangre’s own black man-servant Momba (Leigh Whipper) hovers as a sombre presence befitting the house.

If Dr Sangre’s poise and lines seem an ideal vehicle for Bela Lugosi, that’s because originally they were. The Hungarian star wasn’t free and neither was second choice Peter Lorre. Victor makes an enigmatic enough choice though and it’s a good thing that Sangre seems the perfect host as the threesome learn they must wait two weeks for a boat out of there.

Another uncomfortable segregation reminder occurs when Jeff is asked to lodge in the servants’ kitchen quarters rather than a guest bedroom like Mac and Bill as supposedly it sets a bad example to the other staff. The master needn’t worry; his employees’ attention is taken by other matters, like the zombie slaves who wander in when summoned by the clapping of hands. They have the drone-like movement and sightless staring eyes we expect, which is news to the terrified Jeff, yet seemingly business as usual to Marguerite Whitten’s maid Samantha and the brooding cook Tahama (Madame Sul-Te Wan) who deny all knowledge of the zombies when questioned by Sangre and Jeff’s friends.

It’s worth noting the irony that, despite the racism on show, this film’s two most malevolent characters are played by black actors who broke historic ground in the profession. When Madame Sul-Te Wan, born Nellie Colley, signed up with Fine Arts, she was the first African-American actress to be contracted by a major film studio. Leigh Whipper’s dignity was recognised as the first African-American member admitted to the Actors Equity union in 1913 and set up the Negro Actors Guild in 1937.

Back in the land of the quasi-living, our trio meet Sangre’s wife Alyce (Patricia Stacey) who is in as unreachable a hypnotic state as the zombies. Sangre claims he is trying to help her as victim of ‘a strange malady’. We are also introduced to his niece Barbara Winslow (Joan Woodbury), who corrects herself suspiciously after she at first refers to him as the Doctor rather than her uncle. The plot gets even murkier after the revelation that a previous airplane on official Navy business disappeared in the same area carrying an Admiral Wainwright. Now we understand that Bill too was on a secret services mission.

Gradually, supernatural elements take over. Jeff is attacked by two zombies who try to grab him as he sleeps in the kitchen, and after taking refuge in his friends’ bedroom he’s plagued even further by a spectral visit from Madame Sangre who appears to materialise through the wall to look over Bill. If it wasn’t for her dropping of an ear-ring no-one would believe him. He’s rewarded for his interference though by Sangre putting him into a zombified trance. Here, a comic aspect is applied to render the overcrowding of implausibilites more palatable – though Jeff is under a spell there are enough vestiges of him to deliver one-liners. “Move over boys. I’m one o’ the gang now,” he says as he takes his place among the drones. This at least beats the audience to the critical brickbats by getting there first.

Sadly, Mac joins the choir invisible when he staggers back from the jungle having contracted a rare jungle fever according to the Doctor. Whilst a second opinion would be advisable, it comes from a peculiar Indian colleague of his called Dr Cree who after the briefest of examination concludes that Mac is already dead. How laymen like our heroes couldn’t reach that conclusion without him is disturbing in itself.

The climax is a rush-job where Bill and a quickly-awakened Jeff are alerted by distant drums - “It don’t sound like Gene Krupa”. They stumble upon Dr Sangre about to perform the Rites of Transmigration in which he attempts to transfer top-secret military information from Wainwright (his prisoner all along) into the brain of Barbara for easier access. Mac has been revived into slavery but with a swift prompt from Bill backs his master into a fiery pit death. This dismissive resolution feels very much like a serial from Monogram’s competitor Republic, trying to put away clumsily the clutter of the various plot toys that have been unpacked.

King of the Zombies was slanted heavily toward black moviegoers in its publicity. Since Moreland effectively dominates the film and dilutes any bid for real horror, Monogram desperately pushed cinema owners in black districts to display photos of him with Whitten. “Do everything possible to star them coming, for once they see the show, the word-of-mouth will be sensational”. Another over-optimistic gambit was their follow-on entitled Revenge of the Zombies was made by the studio in 1943, its only connection being the Manton Moreland returning as Jeff and Madam Sul-Te Wan playing a new role.
Jean Yarbrough would go on to vary Poverty Row output with higher-grade Universal contracts, the non-horror Abbott & Costello features The Naughty Nineties (1945) and Lost in Alaska (1952), twice with the short-lived Rondo ‘The Brute Man’ Hatton and a couple of Bowery Boys pictures such as the horror spoof Master Minds (1949) amongst others.

Incidentally, the premise of the film was recycled recently in the Playstation/XBOX console game series How to Survive I & II (2014-present) in which your humble correspondent voices the evil Russian Kovac, similarly ensnaring desperate aircraft via radio broadcasts to land on his dead-infested island and become zombie food for his homicidal amusement.