Friday, 29 July 2016
“…Strikes the living with all her father’s cunning!”
For a studio that had generated four literally monster hit stand-alone horror films in the early 1930s, Universal was surprisingly slow to capitalise on milking them for sequels. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man all took a few years to see their legends produce long-running franchises. The Bride of Frankenstein was the first in 1935 and set a high bar in expanding and surpassing its prequel of four years ago, principally by retaining the talents of original director James Whale coupled with Frankenstein leads Boris Karloff and Colin Clive.
Like Bride, the next one to be sequelled would be inspired by its literary source, but less successfully and even more tenuously with almost none of its original ‘talismen’. Whereas a half-hearted attempt at creating the monster’s mate was briefly described in Mary Shelley’s novel (a blackmailed Victor begrudgingly assembles a temporary workshop concoction of loose limbs before abandoning it), Dracula’s Daughter in 1936 initially came out of a short story edited from Stoker’s novel that bears only a single useful element.
Dracula’s Guest was a short story, formerly a chapter from Dracula that detailed an encounter between the young hero Jonathan Harker and a female vampire and was cut to keep the novel’s length more manageable. In 1933, seeing that Universal were profiting from a virtual horror monopoly, David O’ Selznick over at M-G-M bought this minor card not already in their hand from Stoker’s widow Florence. His studio used the story as a springboard to develop a movie for a female Dracula, even though at this stage there was no suggestion of any familial link between the tale’s female protagonist and Stoker’s infamous Count. M-G-M were warned by their expert legal team that any mention of Dracula in a proposed movie of theirs risked great litigious cost in treading on a rival’s exclusively copyrighted name even though Universal’s ownership was of the novel and not its offspring. Despite hiding the project under the cloak of the code-name Tarantula, the contract made with Florence Stoker clearly stated the proposed cash-in name of Dracula’s Daughter, as well as being a possible blueprint for a strategic end-game. In The Monster Show, David J. Skal speculates that the wily producer added another clause “concerning Selznick’s discretion to resell the rights. In retrospect one must wonder whether this was the point all along.” By hiring Dracula screenwriter John L. Balderston and re-using characters such as Professor Van Helsing and the locale of Transylvania, this adds credence to the idea that the aim all along was to construct an enticing property for sale back to the House of Horror and not a legally risky production in itself.
In his treatment Balderston could not recruit Count Dracula himself (even if allowed) since he had been staked to extinction by Van Helsing at the climax of the original film. Instead, he employed Dracula’s daughter to coral the harem of young nubile undead that satellited Dracula in his castle. The writer reasoned that a lead female blood-sucker would get away with overt sexuality and seduction more than a male, of the young of both sexes, and even introduce a kinky streak in portraying her as a sadistic whip-wielder whose male love-slaves enjoy the torment. By implication, a torture chamber of devices on screen might also suggest creatively awful ways of draining the blood without drawing ire in equal measure from the censors. Balderston’s concept had Van Helsing ridding Castle Dracula of the trio of vampire brides while missing the extra casket housing his daughter, who goes on the rampage in London until the fiancé of one of her victims teams up with the Professor; they ultimately mirror the thrill-ride of Stoker’s novel in heroically chasing the daughter into a fatal staking back home in Transylvania.
Selznick knew he didn’t stand a chance of making Dracula’s Daughter at M-G-M - it contravened both Universal’s copyrighted material and the agreement with Florence Stoker to only use characters from within Dracula’s Guest. As if on cue, Universal acquired the material in September 1934, and enlisted the illustrious R.C. Sheriff to rework it, whose eventual submissions suffered from restrictions themselves. In just over a year, Sheriff sent the Breen Office of censorship two screenplays, the first attempt utterly dismissed for containing ‘countless offensive stuff which makes the picture utterly impossible for approval under the Production Code’ - and the second (which featured flashbacks of Count Dracula) was forensically pecked at to neuter its suggested sexuality and horror even to the level of requesting deletion of any rats, deeming their depiction as ‘bad theatre’.
Rodent removal aside, there’s evidence that the Breen people fell victim to the temptation to blur the line between assessing the public suitability of film-makers’ work and positioning themselves as actual creative collaborators - a suggestion similarly made about James Ferman during his stewardship of the BBFC, the British Board of Film Classification, between 1975-99. Since censorship could be ruinously expensive to a film that was already finished, the Breen Office, like the later BBFC, were consulted pre-emptively at script stage. This in effect allows a judge to assert influence and input before filming begins, which is not the same thing as objective after-the-fact evaluation. In January 1936, after Universal told the Breen Office that they were resorting to a rethink of the entire story, the censors replied ‘…we shall be happy to work along with you on the script when you have it ready…’In this climate of adding another strata of cooks to meddle with the broth, it’s a wonder any films were released of any singular merit during the Production Code’s draconian grip.
Eventually a script by Garret Fort for Dracula’s Daughter was greenlit, albeit unfinished in order to satisfy a deadline in Selznick’s option. By now the hoped-for inclusion of James Whale directing Bela Lugosi and Jane Wyman was not possible – Whale allegedly had encouraged the wild flights of R.C. Sheriff’s imagination in order to get out of a commitment he had never wanted to make, freeing him to direct Showboat. The rush to get Dracula’s Daughter into production with an incomplete screenplay on February 4th 1936 carried over into the frantic pace of filming by director Lambert (The Invisible Ray) Hillyer. Universal ordered seven-day working weeks which meant it finished shooting in just five weeks on March 10th. However it still overran its schedule and budget by seven days and $50,000, coming in at $278,380.
The resulting film of Dracula’s Daughter is centred purely around the daughter with no mention of her notorious father. This was to be the aristocratic Countess Marya Zaleska, played by the haunted nobility and large striking eyes of Gloria Holden, an English born half-German actress whose memorable portrayal would linger far more potently than the surrounding movie to be a direct influence on Anne Rice’s vampire novels. We have to wait a little while for her grand entrance though.
First, there is the little matter of setting the scene. The plot immediately follows the ending of Dracula, placing us at Carfax Abbey where the Count, a dummy in no way resembling Bela Lugosi, lies coffin-bound and staked by Professor Van Helsing. This is a welcome return for Edward Van Sloan in the role, something of a lucky charm as a lead player in all three of Universal’s first three creature franchises. He has understandable difficulty explaining to the doltish Whitby bobbies the reason why he’s just impaled a perfectly decent-looking gentleman in a coffin – as well as the off-camera insect-ingesting Renfield. There’s a nice whiff of black comedy amongst the tombs -Hillyer reminds us a little of the signature blue-collar humour of the missed maestro James Whale:
“’Ow long’s ‘e been dead?”
“About five hundred years.”
Van Helsing is sent to Scotland Yard’s Commissioner Basil Humphrey (or should that be Harumphrey?) played by Gilbery Emery with the requisite scepticism in the face of the Professor’s mad talk of blood-sucking vampires in modern-day England. Van Helsing soon realises his only credible legal defence must be undertaken by his psychiatrist protégé Dr Jeffrey Garth. Before we meet the hero, his enchanting titular nemesis appears to kidnap Dracula’s body. It is his spectrally-poised daughter Countess Marya, swathed in black but allowing her hypnotic eyes to radiate a yearning, enigmatic energy. To emphasise her ethereal beauty, Universal’s famed make-up artist Jack Pierce worked with special effects talent John P Fulton to render her skin tones a grey-green for later scenes, making her pallid in contrast with the ‘living’ cast, a subtler version of the experimentation upon the undead Boris Karloff for The Bride of Frankenstein.
After transfixing one of the station cops with her ring, Countess Maria orders Daddy’s corpse stolen for ritual burial by her manservant Sandor, (Irving Pichel) whose inexpressive demeanour and Eastern-European blouse would be right at home in Ed Wood’s stock company. Pichel played the part in the days before he felt more at home as a director, helming the FX-Oscar winner Destination Moon in 1950, until his semitism and, ironically, patriotism had him blacklisted by the monstrous HUAC (House Un-American Actitivies Commission).
After a Viking-style burning, complete with fiery puffs of salt purification, the Countess feels a desperate craving for her father’s spell over her to be broken for her eternal happiness. Meanwhile, there are victims to be drained, starting with a top-hatted toff. She then crosses flirtacious swords at a party with Dr Garth in the winning form of Otto Kruger (the actor’s name belying the former American Broadway matinee-idol). Kruger has a confident, relaxed air that every so often barks crankily at his put-upon assistant Janet (Marguerite Churchill). Their unacknowledged crackling chemistry tells us he may have a future with her - if he can survive the smouldering peepers of Maria. “I never drink – wine” she intones, throwing away Lugosi’s celebrated tease-line a little too quickly for effect.
Someone at the party who chose her words with more devastating effect was infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. She can be seen here as Lady Esme Hammond in her first incarnation as an actress. Shortly after this film, she spread her leathery wings and scorched flames across Hollywood as a dragon who (alongside rival Louella Parsons) lucratively kept all the buried treasure of industry secrets as her power-base of influence.
Back to a more benign persuader and Garth’s appointment book is filling fast as he now finds himself in demand as the only hope for both Van Helsing and the beguiling Countess. Here is where Dracula’s Daughter achieves its only real resonance of depth – in the theme of modernity versus the traditional. She represents the old world shackled to narrow-minded superstitious fear. He spearheads the brave new world of psychotherapy freeing people of their limiting past traumas – indeed, his mention of psychological ‘release’ is a hot button that causes Marya’s eyes to flash like fog lamps with impatience to become his patient. Garth blithely recommends forcing her to face her fears dead-on (known as ‘flooding’): “Meet it. Fight it. Score the first victory”. Freud would have loved her as a suitable case for treatment.
Garth is not too busy giving Maria free therapy to notice the lack of mirrors in her Chelsea apartment. Such is her equal confidence to his that she amuses him by tossing out that she is a vampire. Her next victim is not so fortunate; a pretty young near-suicidal blonde (Nan Grey) is brought home by Sandor to serve as a sitting subject for the Countess’s art and finds herself a sitting duck, ex-sanguinated into a near coma of off-screen lesbian advances. Under hypnosis, she reveals to Van Helsing and Garth that her ‘benefactor’ is Dracula’s daughter, who has now absconded with Janet to ensnare Garth as her immortal beloved. This prompts the shrink to high-tail it alone to Transylvania to save her.
Cue Tyrolean-style knickerbockers and wax moustaches on the Universal backlot as the locals scatter with fear at the sight of lights on up at Castle Dracula. Garth arrives at the castle, pursued with miraculous transatlantic speed by Van Helsing and Humphrey. Here we are treated to a brief, fair approximation of the original film’s expansive staircase and gigantic spider’s web. The architecture is overshadowed though by the grim jealousy of Sandor, his stoic exterior cracks into vengeance at seeing his promised immortality usurped by the therapist. The divide between ancient and modern is starkly exposed once more as his wooden arrow fatally pierces his mistress but is no match for the modern pistol. Upon seeing her beautiful corpse at rest, Van Helsing opts for gruff respect over sententiousness: “She was beautiful when she died – a hundred years ago”.
Dracula’s Daughter would be the last stake through the heart in the studio’s run of horror films for two years until the unexpected double-bill revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 at a New York cinema revitalised interest in Universal reactivating its iconic creatures for a second cycle. The studio blamed the gap as a crisis of investment confidence caused by the British censors banning horror films and their subsequent revenue. In truth, Carl Laemmle Jr had struggled to keep Universal afloat after the depression despite its box office hits. He was forced to gamble his controlling interest in the company as guarantee against a million-dollar loan from Standard Capital Corporation, which subsequently was called in, handing over Universal’s ownership to its debtors. Sadly, the new executives in charge, J Cheever Cowdin and Charles Rogers, were solely creators of money with no feeling or pride for the arts. They rebranded the mindset of the studio as ‘The New Universal’, quickly sacrificing horror films on the altar of the bottom line. One immediate side-effect was Boris Karloff’s relegation to straight drama character parts, for example in 1937’s crime thriller Night Key.
This downturn in fortune was soon reversed though in 1938 when the aforementioned New York theatre owner discovered a box office bonanza in reviving Universal’s two most famous properties for a one-week run. At least Cliff Work, the studio’s new head of production, had the insight to see that profit could be made once more from the House of Horror. He instigated Son of Frankenstein later that year and kick-started what became the second cycle of Universal monster movies, a gold-rush of sequels featuring all of their back catalogue of famous figureheads. For a while, bust would again turn to boom. Horror was back in business…
Tuesday, 26 July 2016
“You have a beautiful throat for a razor. Beautiful…”
In the early days of the horror film, to keep the new craze going, producers were always on the lookout for suitable material, and the lurid ‘Penny Dreadful‘ serialised stories of London were an ideal source. ‘Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ was an irresistible character - he cut the throats of his customers and then had them ‘fill in’ inside the meat pies made by his partner-in-crime Mrs Lovett for her pie shop. He first appeared in razor-sharp detail between 1846-47 in the story The String of Pearls: A Romance, credited to James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest in The People's Periodical and Family Library. Sweeney went on to become a recurring figure in melodrama, expanding onto the big screen in various versions before achieving arguably his most famous incarnation courtesy of the brilliant Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical in 1979 based on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play. Sweeney Todd not only won Tony Awards but has been revived so often that this version of the story is the most embedded in our minds and leads many to believe mistakenly that he was a real person. In reality, the inspiration for Sweeney had long been a ghoulish urban myth recycled by the public and writers alike even before his personalised literary debut, Dickens had hinted in his own serialised novels at such unsavoury savouries in the Metropolis: streetwise servant Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers warns of cat-meat pies passed off as beef-steak and Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44) refers to “the dens of any of those preparers of cannibalic pastry”.
1928 saw the first film translation, with Todd played by Moore Marriott, best known for later playing old Harbottle in Will Hay’s popular movie comedies. Then in 1936 came the version we focus on here, directed by George King whose first feature Too Many Crooks in 1930 introduced Laurence Olivier to cinema audiences. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was the second lead movie role for the magnificently-named Tod Slaughter (the real surname of actor Norman Carter Slaughter). Newcastle-born Slaughter had begun his theatre career playing mainstream parts until he took ownership of South London’s Elephant and Castle theatre in 1924. There, his stage name was now matched in tone by a crowd-pleasing shift into Victorian Grand Guignol horror plays acted as high melodrama. By then, this late Victorian acting style revolutionised by Sir Henry Irving - thrillingly modern in its time - had become somewhat outdated and laughable, but by sheer force of passion on Slaughter’s company and technique revived the playing style to great popularity. In their excellent study London’s Grand Guignol, Richard J. Hand and Michael Wilson point out that melodramatic stage acting in the 1920s could still be a potent force “when used judiciously to express extreme emotions or passions, or to create moments of tension”.
In the three years he ran the Elephant Repertory company, amongst a varied repertoire Slaughter presented productions such as Sweeney Todd and Maria Marten which built him a personal brand-name for vivid villainy. (This reputation would lead to his media nickname of ‘Mr Murder’ in 1931 when he doubled-up at the New Theatre as Treasure Island’s Long John Silver by day and infamous grave-robber William Burke by night in The Crimes Of Burke And Hare). Surviving live footage of the repertory company can be seen in the 1926 silent documentary London after Dark, possibly the only recorded example connecting classic theatre Grand Guignol tradition with the newly-emerging horror cinema. Tantalising clips show the cast of the military drama The Flag Lieutenant, with Slaughter glimpsed making slightly histrionic declamatory gestures. Although filming a stage performance isn’t a fair reflection unless tailored to the subtleties of the screen, we are shown the audience’s spellbound attention, an intertitle observing: “…with that sincere appreciation which is so rarely found in West End theatres”. Slaughter’s style may not have been suited to the stuffy high-brow element but in terms of the vital bums-on-seats it worked very well.
After a further 2,000 theatre performances as Sweeney Todd, his work would be preserved in King’s 1936 film distributed by the director’s own-named production company. This hints at the low-budget nature of the film, but in fairness horror movies made to be distributed in Britain had to be shot so modestly to attempt any profit margin since their audience was restricted to the over-sixteens.
Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a fun vehicle despite its budgetary limitations, due principally to the relish that Slaughter gives to the fabled man himself. The story is book-ended by a modern-day barber whose product sales tactics are deflected by a cynical customer. When questioned about the painting of Todd, the barber extols his virtues as the finest razor–wielder of them all and away we go back in time to the 1840s. Slaughter is presented as the barber equivalent of an ambulance-chaser, hanging around the docks to ensnare grizzled customers fresh off the boat and in need of a revitalising shampoo and shave. “ Lovely lot of throats, the lot of them…I love my work”. Slaughter savours the ghoulish possibilities in the lines, often capped with a thick unpleasant snigger as he throws himself and his customers into his profession.
Another Dickensian connection is the appearance of the insensitive and obtuse Beadle bestowing on Todd the eighth in a long line of young waifs straight from the workhouse, reminiscent of Oliver Twist. These poor urchins each vanish within a week to be replaced by another from the endless treadmill. Tobias (John Singer) is placed in the dubious care of Todd, who thanks the Beadle with sinister unctuousness and an evil chuckle of presentiment. What seems an initial kindly gesture of sending him out for one of Mrs Lovell’s pies is merely a well-practised ruse of removal while he services his latest victim.
Mrs Lovell, played by Stella Rho, is a worthy and wily foil to Slaughter’s Todd. Her Italian accent gives her dialogue an edgy attack (according to IMDb the London-born Rho’s real name was Stella Giacinta Annabella Maria Nobili-Vitellesch). Theirs is an unholy and uneasy alliance, sitting on a powderkeg of mutual blackmail: “I could hang you Sweeney - like that!” Lovell finger-snaps at him. In various incarnations their relationship is that of lovers as well as grisly partners. Here, it is business, her acknowledged jealousy is not over his interest in the lovely Johanna, but in whether he might abscond with their combined profits.
Intriguingly, this version of the tale makes only the subtlest allusion to the victims as pie-filler at the very end. Until then, likely a pre-emptive strike to avoid censorship, the Todd-Lovell partnership is that of basic murder followed by retrieval of the body’s goods and then an unspecified ‘dispatching’. We see Sweeney disposing of one such mark that he picks up at the docks, a suitably prosperous gentleman who winds up in the chair and is then tipped backwards into the cellar via a secret lever operated by the avaricious barber.
A sub-plot concerns the young lovers Mark Ingerstreet and the aforementioned Johanna (Bruce Seton and Eve Lister). Sweeney is blackmailing her father (D.J. Williams) – who does he not? – for her possible hand in forced marriage over a failed shared ship venture in Africa in which Mark’s Captain is killed in a native uprising. The melodrama sub-plot has a grimly amusing moment when Johanna appeals to her dad desperately for another way out than a marriage of convenience: “Haven’t you anything you can realise money on?” He looks at her meaningfully: “No. Nothing”.
Seton is a workmanlike actor, enlivened more when Mark’s suspicions about Sweeney prompt him to present himself in sideburns and wig disguised as a spirited Yorkshireman while his shipmate is in the cellar below ready to free him in the oddly conspicuous garb of a monk. Johanna is even less lucky with her get-up – her gamine pose as a boy looking for work is rumbled by Sweeney immediately. Mrs Lovell’s mistrust of Todd allows her to grow enough of a conscience to free Mark and in a climactic grapple with Sweeney, the barber is dropped by his own contraption into a fiery doom.
As mentioned earlier, returning to a modern-day epilogue finally hints at the cannibalistic contents of the pie-lady’s wares, a vendor’s sign advertising ‘fresh meat’ as the customer skidaddles in fear.
Though it goes for a safer veggie option, this meat-free Sweeney Todd earns its crust by Slaughter’s flavourful machinations and some artful concealing of miniscule resources in the period scene staging.
Friday, 22 July 2016
“You can’t kill me again…”
Boris Karloff’s second horror film released early in 1936 was a chance to work over at Warner Brothers for the highly-regarded Michael Curtiz who’d already established his credentials in horror with Doctor X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum the year after. As we’ve seen in earlier reviews of these two, Curtiz was a talent who could craft a film well and at speed, talents which would ensure him a long career in the industry. The Walking Dead basically plays as a gangster murder-thriller rather than a horror film, which suits not only Curtiz’s previous work in handling fast wise-guy dialogue on the run, but also was mounted by the perfect studio as Warner’s house style was already associated with the gritty gangster movies of Bogart and Cagney. Indeed, Karloff’s central role could just as easily have been played by Bogart and have the film labelled as a very dark crime picture.
Despite the esteemed director and studio, Karloff had some misgivings going into the project, most importantly a concern that his character spent most of his screen time lumbering in intentionally corpse-like, almost monosyllabic form which he felt was too close to the career-making monster role of Frankenstein that he was careful to leave behind now. Curtiz added more writers to a shooting script credited to multiple names including the original story co-creator Ewart Adamson. The finished film still bears resemblances to his former part though. Incidentally, Karloff had already worked with Curtiz shortly before being catapulted to fame in The Mad Genius (1931).
How this comes about follows a whirlwind opening where Curtiz deftly establishes a fast-paced world of mobsters and fast-talking reporters at a court house where we learn that the defence attorney Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) does nothing for negative legal stereotyping by proving to be more corrupt than his clients as ring-leader of the city’s mob. He takes advantage of a visit by Karloff’s meek, down-at-heel ex con John Ellman to frame him for the murder of the Judge. Circumstantial evidence seems to nail the unlucky Ellman as the driver of a car the gangsters dump the body into. He’s only just got out from serving ten years unfairly for second-degree murder as it is, and with the Judge victim being the same one who sent him down, it looks like a revolving door of more prison food for the poor bastard.
Ellman may be a lugubrious sap yet he has a refined soul and musical talent as a pianist. He asks the Warden for the last request of hearing his favourite piece played by a violinist as he is walked to the chair. It’s a shame he didn’t ask for a symphony as the witness couple who can confirm his innocence are just too late to save him from riding the lightning – courtesy of Nolan stalling for time instead of communicating up the chain of authority.
At this point, science trumps the legal double-dealing with the winning hand of Dr Beaumont, who revives the freshly-dead Ellman. Beaumont is played with a credible medical passion by Edmund Gwenn who in an impressive career would later win an Academy Award as Kris Kringle in the charming Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Here he delivers the equally miraculous present of revivification to the dead Ellman. This plot line seems to have been the result of a dual inspiration; firstly, the recent jaw-dropping real life surgery of Dr Robert E Cornish shown in Life Returns (see my review dated 5/7) in which a dog is brought back to life after being gassed to death. The Walking Dead was filmed not long after so may be more than a coincidence. Secondly, the fictional operation involved the staging of another true-life medical marvel, a duplicate ‘perfusion pump’, nicknamed the Lindbergh heart after its co-creator Charles Lindbergh, which sustains the organ during surgery
Either way, the worldwide acclaim this sensational operation bestows on Beaumont is not shared by Ellman who is reborn into confused solemnity and grunted monosyllabic utterances. He is a haunted shell of what he was before, conveyed most convincingly by Karloff, the perfect actor to inhabit such a combination of cadaverous dread and earned sympathy. This comes across with great effect in a powerful scene where Beaumont stages a piano recital to encourage Ellman’s dormant memories to resurface. He begins to play, and Karloff’s piercing soulful gaze hardens into deep homicidal fire as he surveys each of the mobsters invited by Beaumont’s friend District Attorney Werner out of suspicion. We don’t know how Ellman senses these men are implicated in his murder and this intriguing metaphysical thread will be teased at later. Unbeknownst to the good guys, this is a flame that, once lit within Ellman’s snoozing synapses, cannot now be extinguished until each one of his killers has been…
The effect of Ellman's performance supplies enough Hamlet-style vindication for Werner’s earlier hunch that Nolan secretly heads a clandestine mob racket instead of upholding the law: “And I believe you threw a monkey wrench into their machinery when you brought him back to life”. He needn’t worry though about how to exact justice within a proven corrupt system. Ellman embarks on a rampage of vigilante sentencing of his own starting with the aptly-named hitman Trigger who is surprised whilst he was preparing to go after him. Trigger shoots himself by accident whilst backing away, closely followed in death by Blackstone who is hit by a train (a nifty effect of simple back projection that is just brief enough to work).
As the funeral wreaths of Ellman’s handiwork stack up, Nolan responds with the inadvertently comedic observation: “I’m beginning to think those three deaths weren’t a mere coincidence”. No kidding – his steel-trap legal mind is clearly showing signs of rust at not noticing what connects the victims.
In its climax, the film takes an unexpected twist into the religiously poetic. After Ellman is fatally shot attempting to end Nolan, Beaumont seizes insensitively on his dying form, urging him to share the secrets of what he has learned of life beyond death. Karloff again pulls at our heartstrings with a sudden deathbed warning not to meddle in scientific blasphemy: “Leave the dead to our maker. The Lord our God is a jealous God”. This impassioned theistic debate poignantly echoes the moral trespassing by Henry Frankenstein, linking us with more subtlety to Karloff’s most famous screen incarnation. Ellman expires, giving away nothing conclusive to Dr Beaumont and rightfully so. We are left with an enigmatic lingering shot of a church-yard Madonna – and the probable satisfaction for the censors of the Hays Office that ultimately crime, as well as scientifically enhanced revenge from beyond the grave, don’t pay.
Fortunately, The Walking Dead itself profited at the box office, thus keeping Karloff’s profile energised and usefully establishing his value to other studios aside from the horror home of Universal.
Thursday, 21 July 2016
“Your experiments are your friends. Leave people alone”
This science-fiction horror film released by Universal at the beginning of 1936 is fairly forgettable and more than usually implausible, saved only by the interest value in an always welcome re-teaming of Bela Lugosi with Boris Karloff (their third within two years)
The director of The Invisible Ray was Lambert Hillyer who co-directed one of Lon Chaney’s earliest silent film notable roles (in Riddle Gawne) and also 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. The screenplay was by John Colton who hits the ground limping with a clunky foreword seeking to open our closed minds to the amazing scientific possibilities of the age, but instead sounds like dialogue declaimed by Criswell in Plan 9 From Outer Space’s prologue: “Who are we in this youngest and smallest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science?” We’re now primed for the preposterousness that this was meant to dispel – and by that yard-stick the ensuing film doesn’t disappoint.
Karloff, billed as such in stark impact contrast to the more ordinary, fully-named Bela Lugosi, is a reclusive zealot of an astronomer, Dr Janos Rukh, equipped with an impressive telescope in his observatory high up in the Carpathian mountains. He is doted on by his blind mother, a strikingly poised Violet Kemble Cooper, who knows he is still a shy, awkward little boy inside a brusque intimidating surface. He is also fatally leaving his beautiful but drippy wife Diane to die on the vine in his research mania (Francis Drake, a weaker damsel-in-distress than her Yvonne Orlac in Mad Love). Karloff carries off this single-mindedness well, offset by an unusually attractive curly hair and moustache combination. His frosty severity in the role means that Lugosi gets to balance him with soft goatee-bearded urbanity rather than his default setting of ‘Dracula hypno-glower’- which he all too easily fell into in his worst movies - as Dr Benet, a French astro-chemist. One wonders why the writer gave him Gallic ancestry as Lugosi was only comfortable in his own Hungarian accent. More sensible would have been to make him a fellow countryman of Rukh, thus fitting his native tones like a suave glove.
No matter, for there are bigger stellar matters to discuss. Rukh invites a group of illustrious scientists to hear his claim that he has harnessed the power of the nebula of Andromeda, which he can capture and convert into a beam of awesome power that will play back our prehistoric past. All he need do is find a fallen meteor that will give him such properties. He can posture all he likes, for nothing can withstand the more penetrating ray of his mum’s perceptiveness. With chilling gypsy-like prescience she warns him: “Your experiments are your friends. Leave people alone”.
Though he is something of a mummy’s boy, Mother Rukh’s words don’t stop her son travelling to Africa as part of Dr Benet’s expedition to find the meteor with his wife in tow, a travel writer, Lady Stevens and her nephew Ronald, (the formidable character actress Beulah Bondi and the less so Frank Lawton), and the writer’s wealthy husband Dr Stevens played by Walter Kingsford. Rukh locates the meteor but gets more than he bargained for, courtesy of radiation poisoning that gives him a phoesphorescent glow and kills any living creature he touches, beginning with his poor dog. The luminous shimmer effect is weak in execution for a Universal film, looking drawn on and somewhat tacky.
While Rukh is occupied with a new career as a glow-stick Typhoid Mary, he fails to look to his wife who Ronald is making goo-goo eyes at. Thus begins one of those achingly tiresome love triangle sub-plots that thankfully gain minor screen time - Sample dialogue (Diane to Ronald ): “Oh darling, hold me tight. We’re going to need each other so very much”.
Mercifully, the plot grabs the steering-wheel and takes a sharp turn away from Noel Coward (just not suitable in a horror film in my view) into macho revenge flick when Rukh finds out back home that his discovery has been stolen by Benet. He fakes his own death and then in Paris undertakes with serial killer precision the systematic murder of each of the six people he views as associates to the theft. He cuts a swathe through half of them, whilst erasing symbolic church statues each time as though counting off the numbers on his hand until a tell-tale phosphorescent hand-print around the dead Lady Stevens’ neck tips off Benet that his former colleague is very much alive.
The not-quite-so-good doctor concocts a party that he hopes will draw Rukh in like a moth, leading to an amusing black-humour exchange for Lugosi where he is asked what will happen when someone tries to apprehend the luminous lunatic: “He will die…” replies a bemused Benet, his composure briefly dented by having to state the obvious. Rukh begins to finish off the remaining perceived swindlers including Benet, but his long-dormant conscience surfaces just in time to save his wife from radio-active retribution. Compounding the emasculation even more, Mother appears and scolds him into throwing himself through the window where he flames out - in imitation of the film itself.
The Invisible Ray suffered from a tight shooting schedule as well as shoddy scripting, yet even the recycling of Flash Gordon sets and footage from Kenneth Strickfaden’s gizmos from James Whale’s two Frankenstein films couldn’t save it from going over $68,000 beyond its intended $235,000 budget. Universal did manage to save some money on salaries however. In spite of co-star billing, Lugosi still endured a fee considerably less than Karloff ( $4000 compared to Karloff’s $15, 625 as noted in Stephen Jacob’s wonderful Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster). To his credit, the Hungarian maintained friendly relations with his English colleague. Karloff at least used the film profitably as an opportunity also to recruit many more members to the nascent Screen Actors Guild.
Wednesday, 20 July 2016
“Have you ever seen a man torn to pieces by a mob, your Lordship?”
Hot on the heels of The Raven’s release (just one week later) came a superior Boris Karloff film, The Black Room, (titled The Black Room Mystery in the UK) making a busy year for him in his horror work. For Karloff fans, it’s an altogether more satisfying film as he gets to share top billing in a sense with himself in the dual central role of twin brothers, one good and one evil, allowing us to see his subtlety of light and shade.
The Black Room is a nineteenth-century period piece which references Czechoslovakia but whose setting and costumes fit snugly into that Ruritanian netherworld of 1930s horror movies (e.g. Universal’s Frankenstein series) whereby the mob of supporting villagers gamely speak in Eastern European accents while the principals use received English and modern American. It was a Columbia studio production from a screenplay by Arthur Strawn and Henry Myers, and directed by Roy William Neill who later helmed many of the Sherlock Holmes sequels as well as Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man for Universal. Neill makes a solid job of crafting the film, encouraging sincere performances of gravitas from the cast along the way without any padding to the plot.
Immediately we are taken into the home of Baron de Berghman (Henry Kolker), who greets the news of the birth of twin boys with grave fear instead of fatherly pride. His family is overshadowed by a curse that saw the last pair of brothers embroiled in murder, the younger killing the older within the castle’s Black Room. Attempts by his advisor Colonel Hassel (Thurston Hall) to assure him it cannot be repeated with twins fall on deaf ears - he is convinced that the single minute separating their births still sets the circumstances for the prophecy to be fulfilled. Such is the Baron’s noble concern for the future that he orders the room bricked up to try and prevent the curse.
Moving ahead by forty years, the reputation of the inheriting elder son Gregor precedes him unseen as we overhear the locals take turns despising his tyranny. “He’s worse than that. He’s a fiend” declares one. Meanwhile the younger brother arrives after a long time away. As Anton, Karloff is a sunny, pleasant eternal student, a character type hardly ever allowed the actor within the confines of horror after he was established. It’s a pleasure to see his natural, unforced charm and positivity, bearing the character’s crippled-at-birth right arm with equanimity and bonhomie for all. His sensitivity has depth though; we discover that his long self-imposed exile was from a selfless wish to relieve Gregor of the constant reminder of fearing the prophecy’s fulfillment at his hands. Gregor has summoned him back home for an undisclosed reason, which is soon revealed as is the elder brother himself. Reinforcing Anton’s inherent goodness (and Karloff’s talent) is Gregor’s contrasting personality, a dour and poisonous demeanour riddled with paranoia. The actor soaks him in a
brooding soup of menace, his dark eyes beaming with sadistic possibilities.
The legacy of Gregor’s arrogant cruelty reflects back on him in the resulting vengeance he is afraid awaits him at the hands of his servants and villagers. He at least appears decent enough to want the two to be reunited in brotherly closeness without the curse hanging over them any more. Considering he demonstrates no remorse for his ways, it remains to be seen how he intends Anton to help him…
Our suspicions about Gregor’s potential evil is confirmed when Mashka, a young villager, threatens to expose knowing that he has a secret entrance to the Black Room in which he carries large unspecified objects. He murders her, thus rendering her a large specified object taken into the room. Mashka was played by the entrancing, deep-voiced Katherine De Mille, adopted daughter of famed director Cecil B. De Mille and later wife of Anthony Quinn. Mashka’s discarded shawl is seized upon by the locals, lighting the touch-paper of their burning hostility into a vigilante uprising aimed at his castle. Gregor deftly avoids their revenge by voluntarily renouncing his title in favour of his much more popular brother. This political dexterity turns out to be impressive not only in expediency but for being part of a long game of Gregor’s. When he shows apprehensive Anton the interior of the Black Room Gregor dumps him down a pit concealed in the room, the same place he ditched Mashka, killing him in order to take his identity. Anton can only utter a fateful promise that the curse will be fulfilled “even from the Dead”.
This is where the furtive fun of The Black Room’s premise is to be enjoyed. Can wickedness personified sustain a mask of goodness personified? Karloff double-plays as both with consummate skill and undercurrent glints almost, but not quite, for our eyes only. Gregor’s long-gestated plan to seduce Thea, daughter of Colonel Hassel (a soothing and sincere Marian Marsh) is throw into overdrive when the Colonel offers him full ownership of her assets as a dowry. Gregor’s overconfidence in the catbird seat causes him to drop the faked arm routine, spotted by the Colonel, who is also perceptive enough over the chess board to detect his killer instinct compared to his meeker brother. Sadly, there’ll be no wedding cake for him as Gregor dispatches the old kitty down the dry well.
There’s also a brief gleam of the unsheathed sword of private sadism by Karloff when he dissembles for the grieving and unwitting Thea before their wedding. Watch his vulpine snarl when her face is turned away from him - “There there, my dear. Don’t cry” – a lovely little moment of macabre relish.
As one might expect, the dam that hides Gregor’s true nature must burst eventually and it does so courtesy of Anton’s faithful hound Tor, who attacks this corrupt copy of his master in the church just as the vicar is about to seal the deal, causing Gregor to reveal his intact arm in defence. Cover blown, this time there is no escape from the rampaging bloodthirsty mob who pursue him to his inevitable reunion with Anton in the Black Room. Side by side in death, they are a grisly testament to the horror movie rule that you can run but you can’t hide from destiny.
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
“To a new world of Gods and Monsters…”
By the mid-1930, the horror film was in a virtual coma, killing time between its initial fever of box-office excitement that began with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein (1931-32) through a gradual slump until revitalisation again in 1938 thanks to the surprise hit double-bill pairing of the two by an enterprising cinema owner in New York. There were sporadic twitchings of life though, such as The Mummy and the impressively consistent run of splendid James Whale-directed films. After Frankenstein, he had continued to develop his signature combination of horror and dark subversive humour in The Old Dark House, The invisible Man and then his crowning achievement in the genre, The Bride of Frankenstein. This was to be his swansong in horror and many fans regard it as one of the very greatest horror movies of all time.
Universal had wanted to put Boris Karloff into a sequel called Return of Frankenstein, based on a treatment by Tom Reed, going so far as to design posters for it. The title was kept until the actual sequel began. Whale was resistant to being involved having felt he’d already fulfilled his intentions with the first film. He was persuaded to make a sequel so long as he could exercise personal control over the screenplay development, credited to William Hurlbut and John L. Balderston, and many of its ideas (the Shelley prologue and bottled miniature people are his, for example). In writer Paul M. Jensen’s more recent interview with Elsa Lanchester, she told him that Whale had insisted to the studio that she play both Mary Shelley and the Bride, performances that create well-crafted bookends to the film.
The prologue is a treat of an opening, tying together the story’s heritage with its modern cinema telling. As we saw in the discussion of 1931’s Frankenstein, Mary Shelley conceived the novel during a holiday stay at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva in 1816 as part of what became a remarkable powerhouse foursome of literature gathered together. Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were already poets of great acclaim. Mary Shelley was yet to begin her writing career and Byron’s friend Dr John Polidori would go on to publish his short tale The Vampire, the very first mainstream vampire story published, that same year.
In Bride of Frankenstein, we bypass the bet that inspired the original filmed novel in favour of a neat introduction to the sequel, well-directed and characterised despite the scene’s brevity. Gavin Gordon’s Byron is an excellent preening peacock, darkly revelling in the public’s condemnation of him as ‘England’s greatest sinner’, fruitily rolling his ‘r’s and inevitably eclipsing Douglas Walton’s milquetoast version of Percy. Whale’s point in the prologue was to suggest that beautiful people are just as capable of wicked thoughts as those less prepossessing. Elsa Lanchester imbues Mary with the requisite beauty and a formidable self-possession that easily holds her own with the menfolk. A montage covers the first film and then she invites her friends, minus the absent Polidori, to hear what happened next…
The narrative timeline that follows is interesting. Whilst Bride picks up so closely from the end of the original Frankenstein film that the burnt-down windmill of the climax is still smouldering, it backtracks just enough to show Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein being retrieved from the wreckage. (We saw him safe at home at the end of the first movie). The debris is surveyed with shrill-voiced shrewishness by that most combatively vivid villager from The Invisible Man, Una O’ Connor, as Minnie – a favourite of Whale’s rep company of regulars. She undermines the authority of the Burgomaster in the form of another favoured player from that movie, E.E. Clive, a specialist in nincompoops of authority. There’s a brief glimpse as well of Karloff’s Monster, emerging from his encasement in a wall of mud to save a villager, but more of him later.
By showing Henry’s rescue, Whale expands on the hurriedly-filmed ending of Frankenstein which merely showed him bed-ridden in a long shot – due to a last-minute decision forced on him by Universal to not kill the scientist off. Henry is doted on by his wife Elizabeth, an impressively mature (if stagey) 17 year-old Valerie Hobson who replaced Mae Clarke. She is concerned for her husband, whose post-traumatic stress has him “tossing in your delirium”. Henry expresses regret at his insane God complex of tinkering with life: “Perhaps death is sacred and I have profaned it”. Clive’s heartfelt sentiment could almost be a mouthpiece for the censor here who was hugely vexed by the perceived quasi-blasphemousness in the first film.
Never fear though, for the slumbering body of this sequel is about to be injected with an all-new treatment, courtesy of Henry’s old mentor Dr Septimus Praetorius. The name alone reeks of Victorian Gothic and embodied by Ernest Thesiger, he is a splendidly camp queen of a gentleman, severely waspish and bearing a permanent lofty sneer at the world. Though allegedly Claude Rains and Lugosi were considered, Thesiger is prissy perfection in the part and in real-life was Whale’s own mentor from his theatre days. Praetorius is a terrific component in Bride as he allows Henry to have his experimental cake and eat it. By blackmailing Henry into continuing his work, it allows the protégé to writhe on the hook in moral torture (Clive’s most compelling actor quality) whilst appealing to his still-burning desire to perfect the rejuvenation of dead tissue.
Under the guise of a coerced seduction of Henry‘s vulnerable mad scientist, Whale must have relished the chance to throw blasphemy in the face of Joseph Breen, head of the Hays office. The Production Code of censor approval was in full effect now, forensically combing through Hollywood films for anything remotely controversial, which made something of a game for the director. His subversive side enabled Henry to get away with the almost messianically hot: “It may be that I am intended to know the secret of life. It may be part of the divine plan”. Even when the Breen office forced a line-change, there were still ways to convey the underlying meaning. At script-approval stage, they vetoed Praetorius’s intended: “Follow the lead of nature or God…if you like your fairy tales” with the less incendiary : “…if you like your bible stories” but Thesiger caps the line with such scorn, it has the same derisory effect even in censored form. Later, there is even a toppling of religious iconography in Karloff’s knocking over of a graveyard bishop’s statue, not to mention the Monster being inbued with Christ-like suffering if you’re inclined to read it subtextually that way.
Praetorius seals the deal with the famous quote that begins this article and then trumps the shadowy grandeur of his entrance with an illustration of his perversely cruel nature and a touch of Whale’s offbeat sense of humour – the mythical miniature characters under glass that he has bred. They are a parade of satirised icons mostly of the fairy tale world: the greedy King, the Queen, the widow’s-peaked Lugosi-esque Devil, the Mermaid and, for sheer mischief, an Archbishop. All are parodied in their pantomime gesturing and pip-squeak voices, the special effects pulling off a smooth transition as the King is lifted with tweezers by Praetorius and dumped back into his own jar.
We then switch focus to Karloff’s Creature, now free and roaming the countryside – a superbly realistic studio backlot set of which Whale was justifiably proud. He lumbers through the forest in search of the basic needs of all – food, shelter and companionship. He finds none of the first two with the frightened gypsies but strikes lucky at the home of a hermit (O.P. Heggie) leading to another of the celebrated highlights of the film. The tenderness of Heggie’s kindness toward the Monster is very moving, not least for its utter lack of irony or condescension. The blind old man finds a kindred spirit in Karloff’s fellow outcast, offering him the comforts of his soup, wine and cigar, the only person ever to recognise the Monster’s inner humanity. It is a clumsy negotiation between them and all the more touching for Heggie’s soothing of Karloff’s fear of fire and the disarming directness of their mutual understanding. “Alone…bad. Friend..good” grunts Karloff, his deep rumbling utterances somehow enobling him. Karloff always had misgivings about giving voice to the Monster, fearing it would detract from the poetic mystique of his performance, and although it was a device never used again, here its beguiling simplicity of expression gives extra poignancy. The scene also contains an example of Franz Waxman’s finely-judged music score, delicately adding a biblical, saintly atmosphere to the hermit and his guest. Such is the scene’s depth that even when lovingly pastiched by Gene Hackman and Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, ["Wait, I was gonna make espresso..."), the affection for the relationship is still evident. Look out for a very young John Carradine as one of the hunters who cruelly breaks up the temporary friendship.
It is no coincidence that The Bride of Frankenstein brings two misfits together like this. Indeed all of the film’s principal players barring Elizabeth fit that description, whether by circumstances (as these two must endure, along with Lanchester’s Bride thrust into the world) or inner direction (Praetorius and Henry Frankenstein’s transgressive scientific views render them apart from the mainstream world). Whale had an innate sympathy for those who are different, living as a gay man in a prejudiced society, albeit more comfortably than Colin Clive could with his own homosexuality.
On the subject of comforts, Boris Karloff was by now enjoying some influence in his career. The lowly Universal contract player who shot to fame just four years before as the mad scientist’s ‘off-spring’ was exerting a star’s persuasion not only on behalf of the Hollywood actors’ community in his sterling work for the new Screen Actors Guild, but on a personal level he negotiated to reduce the punishing hours for himself spent undergoing the make-up every day for the Monster. Instead of the time-consuming layering on of cotton and collodium by resident genius Jack Pierce, Karloff was given a single piece rubber forehead as a short-cut. His new prosperity had also generously accorded him a slightly more well-fed look than the cadaverous face of 1931, so his appearance was rounder. The aftermath of the mill fire shows in the burns Pierce applied to his hands and face and crew-cut hair (which gradually grows more over the evolving story).
The great cinematographer John J Mescall was another of Whale’s long-standing collaborators who used clever lighting techniques to enhance Karloff’s blue-green skin tones provided by Pierce. Film historian Scott Macqueen discusses this in She’s Alive (Universal’s informative Bride documentary): “If the monster were filmed wearing this shade of greasepaint on ortho-chromatic film…with blue gel light, he would read as dead white. To increase the contrast, red was mixed with the other actors’ make-up sharing scenes and train warmer lights on them” – thus re-creating that all-important walking corpse veracity. Mescall was renowned for his overall shooting style nicknamed ‘Rembrandt lighting’, simulating the great painter’s work by using a central light with cross lights from opposing directions to add contours to faces as well as Charles Hall’s wonderful sets - Praetorius’s shadowy first entrance is a striking example.
Another surprising meeting of minds in the film is the first encounter between Praetorius and the Monster. Thesiger sits eating and drinking at night in the cemetery vault, using a coffin as a table for his bread and wine. The candlesticks and skull décor add a darkly funny gothic tinge as he guffaws at the world between mouthfuls. When Karloff appears, the sequence becomes an imitation of the hospitality he has just enjoyed – indeed Praetorius greets him with the amusingly unruffled composure of a new travelling companion. “I thought I was alone. Good evening”. What the Monster doesn’t know is that a hidden agenda bubbles away now inside his new host, one that will use the Creature as leverage to force Henry into creating a female version of the revived dead.
This brings us to the famous climax of the movie as the Bride is unforgettably brought into the world. Charles Hall’s high-ceilinged set for the laboratory is magnificent, showcasing the return of Kenneth Strickfaden’s astounding equipment such as the ‘cosmic defuser’ and the awesome spiralling coil that connects the lightning above to the stretcher bearing Lanchester to the heavens. Her birth is sensational. “She’s alive – alive!” crows Clive, even more effusively than when he created her male ‘suitor’. Lanchester stands imperious, a Queen gowned in flowing white before her subjects. The actress gifts her role with memorable details: the bird-like gaze flitting about her in wonder, staring up at the moonlight. Then comes the awful moment of truth as she surveys Karloff and emits a silent almost feline yowl of disgust. “She hate me – like others” the Monster poignantly utters before literally bringing the house down with one of the great epic horror movie closing lines: “We belong dead”. Lanchester hisses with venomous defiance and is gone, a truly stunning performance that resonates beyond her incredibly brief appearance (no more than five minutes) into the history books as the most vivid female horror character ever represented.
Before the castle detonates, this section of the film is also appreciable for Waxman’s music cues. There are effective stings that augment the mood – the lone drum that imitates the heartbeat of the comatose Bride and the grotesque parody of wedding bells as she stands triumphantly alive. The composer was careful to attribute evocative leitmotifs for each character, even to remind us of them when off-screen – Elizabeth’s romantic melody, the Monster’s three-note ‘da-da-da daaa’ that replicates his growl and the graduating violin shiver when Praetorius lurks.
In advance of its release, there were roughly fifteen minutes of scenes excised from Bride. Elsa Lanchester’s cleavage was considered revealing enough to warrant judicious edits to the prologue, but the main bulk of cuts consists of an entire ten-minute sub-plot involving Dwight Frye as the nervy criminal body-snatcher Karl. To boost audience sympathy for the Creature, Whale filmed a whole section whereby Karl kills his aunt and uncle and attempts to frame the Monster for the murders. Ultimately the sequence proved an unnecessary hindrance to the pace and was dropped. Frye would still have been grateful to Whale’s characteristic loyalty though; Karl was a composite of various parts rolled into one by the director to give his admired friend more screen time in the rest of the film. (We still have the pleasure of his jittery defence for procuring the Bride’s corpse: “It was a very fresh one!”). The final release print of the film is masterfully edited by Ted Kent, leaving no fat in its prime-cut 75 minutes.
In spite of the great success of The Bride of Frankenstein, the increasing burden of debt was too great to save Universal from being sold a year later to new owners who lacked any artistic taste or ambition. Boris Karloff showed the wise career judgement which may have eluded his contemporary Bela Lugosi in only agreeing to one more sequel as the Monster, Son of Frankenstein in 1939. He foresaw the descent into bad jokes and worse sequels. The lack of Whale’s input made the law of diminishing returns an inevitability as the franchise wagon rolled on.
Whale became disillusioned with the industry itself and several years later after Showboat and the failure of The Road Back - his sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front - he enjoyed a comfortable retirement before suffering debilitating strokes that caused him to commit suicide in 1957. He never lived long enough to enjoy the great critical re-appraisal of his contribution to cinema (and horror especially) yet Bill Condon’s affectionate biopic Gods and Monsters (1998) goes some way to pay homage to James Whale’s talent and sensibility decades after his life.
Thursday, 7 July 2016
“They have a life of their own. They feel for knives. They want to throw them – and they know how to!”
While trying to stoke the flagging flames of the horror boom, Hollywood studios inevitably turned to recycling existing films. Mad Love in 1935 was a remake of The Hands of Orlac, the 1924 German Expressionist classic directed by Robert Wiene and memorably starring Conrad Veidt as the concert pianist whose newly grafted-on hands after a horrific accident formerly belonged to a murderer and now develop a homicidal life of their own (reviewed here on 12/1).
For M-G-M’s American version, horror writer Guy Endore adapted a translated adaptation of Maurice Renard's source story Les Mains D'Orlac set in Montmartre, Paris and collaborating on it with Karl Freund who had by now converted his highly-regarded cinematography career into being a Hollywood horror director of note with The Mummy (1932). Freund’s own choice of cameraman Greg Toland (supplementing the studio’s choice of Chester Lyons for eight days of additional shooting after-the-fact) would also make his mark, achieving fame for his ground-breaking lensing on 1941’s Citizen Kane. This association with Orson Welles’ classic invited uncomfortable comparisons as we will see.
Mad Love hews fairly close to the basic plot of The Hands of Orlac but focuses more on the surgeon Dr Gogol who carries out the operation rather than his victim Orlac – here named Stephen instead of Paul. Even though the esteemed Colin Clive writhes in torment superbly as the possessed pianist, he is under-used and overshadowed by the maniacal motivation of Peter Lorre whose film this is. Both actors are perfectly cast in roles that channel their most defining qualities. Clive inhabits the same furious frustration that made Conrad Veidt so believable in the original, his genius thwarted not by society as he conveyed scorchingly in the Frankenstein films, but by his own body revolting against him. It’s unfortunate that we see so little of him. Lorre, meanwhile, as Gogol makes use of that beguilingly forlorn manner he somehow pulls off with barely any facial expression, the impassivity belied by his sinister, silkily unctuous voice which renders an extra dimension of sympathy even to the Grand Guignol villainy that he triumphantly succumbs to at the end.
There’s a rich seam of supporting performances to enjoy, including a typically spirited cameo from the instantly recognisable comedy star Billy Gilbert, Laurel and Hardy’s explosive nemesis in The Music Box and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, who plays an overgrown schoolboy autograph hunter of criminals on the early fateful train journey shared with Orlac. It is he who leads us to Rollo, the surprisingly affable murderer catalyst (Edward Brophy, who had the same surname as the circus owner in 1932’s Freaks). There is an interesting later resumé connection between the two actors who would both go on to voice animated roles in Disney favourites – Brophy as Timothy the mouse in Dumbo and Gilbert lending his vocal skills as Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The wise-guy reporter who pursues the emerging story is Ted Healy who’d already had a hugely-lucrative vaudeville career and put together the Three Stooges. More obvious comic relief is provided by Mae Beatty as Gogol’s permanently sozzled housekeeper Francoise with pet cockatoo always on her shoulder.
Rollo demonstrates his unnerving knife-throwing talents to Orlac with a pen which will prove mightier than a sword as the plot unfolds. In the aftermath of the train crash, Orlac’s wife Yvonne, a hard to resist Frances Drake, appeals to Gogol to save his precious hands which are scheduled for amputation. We already know that Gogol is obsessed with her as he’s seen her perform on stage for 47 straight nights and keeps a waxwork double of him that he names Galatea. He concurs with the proposed amputation, yet such is his all-consuming desire for Yvonne that he is seized with a daring notion inspired by seeing Rollo guillotined: “Impossible? Napoleon said that word is not French!” Neither is the rest of the film as such, but no matter.
Before you can say medical montage, Clive is enjoying an idyllic post-op picnic with Drake on the river-bank, his hands bandaged into ungainly paddles. Upon unwrapping his digits, Gogol assures him that after painstaking massage and ultra-violet treatment, he will again play like a concert star. Clive gives us an all-too-brief glimpse of Orlac’s inward struggle in these scenes which tragically were mirroring his own real-life inner demons, By now in reality the actor was gradually succumbing to the fatal alcoholism fuelled partly by homosexual angst that would kill him within two years. In close-ups Clive gets away with the prematurely aging bags under his eyes which play into the character, yet he’s painfully thin when in shirt-sleeves, his arms and torso wizened. He was already starting to look much older than 35.
When the piano-dealer comes calling for his outstanding payments, it sparks off the first sign that Orlac’s hands have a murderous mind of their own, kept secret from him by Gogol. The hapless dealer isn’t the only one to almost be impaled on a nib. The couples’ finances are so grim that a visit to his estranged father nearly causes the same fate for Orlac senior. Orlac pours out his anguish to Gogol, who whips up a little off-the-cuff psychoanalysis to throw him off the scent of the real origin of his extreme extremities.
Yvonne is at least shrewd enough to see through Gogol’s self-interested diagnosis and here Mad Love really earns its title and echoes of Citizen Kane. Gogol is hounded by his split personality goading him to a more deliberate torture of his patient. The mirror image is at first reminiscent of Smeagol/Gollum’s schizoid duality in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, yet in Toland’s filming and Lorre’s bald-headed fury, we can almost see Orson Welles’ older Charles Foster Kane. In her essay ‘Raising Kane’ critic Pauline Kael went so far as to accuse Welles of purposely imitating Mad Love in both its protagonist’s appearance and the set designs for Citizen Kane, causing champion defender and friend of Welles, fellow director Peter Bogdanovich, to dismiss these charges.
For my money, the most impressive design feat is the disguise Gogol adopts to push Orlac to the brink of insanity. He impersonates Rollo in a bravura costume and prosthetics that combine Guignol horror with Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom. He sports a plastic neck-brace with metal brackets, a medieval knight’s gauntlets and round-framed shades that draw attention to his toothy rictus grin, topped with a fedora. This elaborate super-villain outfit releases the pent-up megalomania within Gogol (and Lorre, splendidly so), brimming over into cackling expository triumph when he returns home – all the better for the writers to bluntly contrive Yvonne hearing his guilt. Another clue to his frothing madness, if we needed one, is his playing of the organ – does anyone sane or virtuous ever play one in a horror film? The man’s so unbalanced that when she pretends to be Galatea to avoid being caught snooping, he believes it is the statue of his beloved come to life.
The ending is clearly rushed and betrays the gap in the narrative where The Hands of Orlac had deepened our relationship with Orlac by having him collaborate with the police to prove his innocence. Here, the cops and the almost-framed hero simply rush in to save Yvonne and end Gogol’s dubious practises.
Mad Love wasn’t a success on its release despite Charlie Chaplin hailing Lorre as "the greatest living actor" yet has gained a strong and deserved following since.
Tuesday, 5 July 2016
“The next step…is in the hands of tomorrow.”
The Raven wasn’t the only Hollywood film that would trouble the censors in 1935. Another, far more infamous one was the undeniably controversial Life Returns, the first horror film to fairly be labelled a documentary of sorts as well – shoe-horning in an actual operation on-screen carried out by a real surgeon who restores life to a dead dog. The surgery itself is ultimately as life-affirming in tone as in actuality (mercifully so since as a dog-lover I approached this with great trepidation) but there was no way this would be an easy sell to a typical audience, and this real footage at the end earned the film an outright ban in Britain in all media for decades.
I first read about Life Returns as a boy in Denis Gifford’s marvellous A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, in which he inadvertently teased the pre-internet 1970’s reader: “Of all horror films, Life Returns is the most ‘lost’. Never seen In England, even in today’s relaxed climate; never reprinted for television; unpreserved by archives, unmentioned by historians, unregistered even for copyright; yet it was the only documentary horror film”.
Obviously, to an impressionable mind, this total erasure of a film conjures up all kinds of imagined horrific forbidden possibilities, a curiosity that demands to be eventually satisfied. Thankfully, due to social media, the film is available in a good enough copy to finally see what all the fuss was about.
For the most part, as it needed to make money back from a cinema release, the ground-breaking medical footage that Life Returns ends with had to be padded out with dramatic scenes concocted to appear as a legitimate movie. Directed by Eugene Frenke from a script by five writers including Mary McCarthy and James P Hogan, these are competent enough but worthy of little interest as simply connective tissue between fiction and the real footage.
A prologue is at pains to point out the veracity of the stunning operation we will finally see (once the less stellar dramatics have been dispensed with) – a signed affidavit by the surgeon himself Dr Robert Cornish: “…This part of the picture was originally taken to retain a permanent scientific record of our experiment. Everything shown is absolutely real. The animal was unquestionably and actually dead, and was brought back to life…”
The fictional soap-opera begins by detailing the light-hearted pre-graduation college times of three doctors, one of whom goes on to work at the fictional Arnold Research Laboratories where he hopes to gain funding for his experiments into the resurrection of life. He is Dr John Kendrick (Onslow Stevens), who does the heavy (and heavy-hearted) lifting of the film for the most part. He finds his employer Mr Arnold, like many in the latter-day pharmaceutical industry, is in the business of seeking commercial reward not humanitarian breakthroughs, and when shunted over from his noble pursuit to Arnold’s “better facial creams, better nail polish, better dandruff cures”, the bristling is more from him than the product: “Best brushes on the market! Is that what you want?” he cries in self-loathing to his society beauty wife Valerie Hobson. She would make another tempestuous match as a scientist’s wife that same year playing Henry’s wife Elizabeth in Bride of Frankenstein.
Tragically, after Kendrick loses his job, he goes downhill - his wife dies and their son Danny (George P. Breakston) is made a ward of the state since his wrecked father can no longer support either of them. To make matters worse, Danny’s beloved dog Scooter is taken by the dog pound and gassed – unseen, I hasten to add. The focus of the narrative shifts somewhat as we see the young boy rally a little in being befriended by a Dead End Kids-style street gang.
Fortunately, this manipulative Chaplinesque melodrama eventually makes way for the real substance of the film. The actors become witnesses to the spliced-in genuine surgical wonderment contrived so as to appear carried out upon Scooter by Dr Cornish, and what a ghoulishly compelling scene it is. One of his crack team sucks oxygen from a tube then breathes it mouth-to-mouth into the unconscious pooch, whilst the rest labour over various paraphernalia including an injected ‘resuscitation fluid’, verbally assuring the viewer along the way of the dog’s gradual safe revival . Finally, Scooter’s racing pulse and nervous system is calmed with Nembutal and the slightly harrowing sight of him strapped on his back paws in the air and yelping softly is softened when he raises his head to lick Danny’s face - albeit possibly after-the-fact footage.
The extraordinary real achievement of Cornish and his team is then crowned with mournfully-toned and unnecessary closing remarks by the eclipsed fictional bystander Dr Kendrick: “This is the culmination of a dream. Dr Stone and I are merely contributions to his fulfilment”. (This puts me in mind of Robert Prosky’s hilariously indignant line in Broadcast News: “Who cares what you think?”)
Life Returns is a bold attempt to give 1930s cinemagoers something provocative and edifying to go with their easier entertainments. In a sense, it’s Frankenstein for real – or a reverse snuff movie if you will. However it’s impossible to imagine an audience chowing down on popcorn and soft drinks whilst spectating on a distressed reviving dog strapped to an operating table. ‘What were they thinking?’ might be a fair question to posit when this project was being greenlit.
I admire Scienart Pictures for bringing the remarkable science to Joe Public. By watering down the science with fake back-story contrivance though, they risked obscuring and trivialising the work as well as showing poor taste in judgement. Life Returns was simply an unworthy, wrong-headed platform.