Friday, 26 August 2016


“One does not easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots."

Following the takeover of Universal by investors from the Standard Capital Corporation on April 2nd 1936, the owners at New Universal struggled like their predecessors to turn a profit. That year they made a loss of almost $2m and still lost over $1m in 1937. This downturn in fortune was soon reversed though in 1938 when a New York theatre owner discovered a box office bonanza in reviving Universal’s two most famous properties Dracula and Frankenstein for a one-week engagement. 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.

Son of Frankenstein lacked the close supervision of all elements by director James Whale that had made the earlier two films such successes. He and star Boris Karloff had both been prescient enough to see the cheapjack level that the series would eventually descend to and only by having a great deal of control would Whale agree to make The Bride. By the time the second sequel went into production, the studio’s desire to simply release product as quickly as possible to capitalise on this possible new wave meant that artistry was of less importance than speedy workmanship to a deadline. 

By now, Whale was out of favour at the studio for whom he’d made so much money in the past. Despite being key to their first lucrative horror wave with the Frankenstein franchise and The Invisible Man (which would become a belated money-spinner series of its own), he’d had a hit with a genre closer to his sensibility in 1936’s Showboat and even given Universal a successful war picture with the All Quiet on the Western Front sequel The Road Back. His justifiably demanding artistry caused conflict though with employers and after the studio softened the latter without his permission to avoid offending German audiences, he opted for a freelance contract with them, retiring comfortably after only a handful of other films until his untimely suicide in his own swimming pool in 1957.

Whale’s artistry was replaced by studio contract director Rowland V Lee as both director and producer in what turned out to be a far more potent choice than expected. Stephen Jacobs detailed how aside from effective direction, behind the scenes he was able to demand the budget be upped from a proposed $250,000 (actually less than the original cost) to double that, thus embarking with a fighting chance of quality from the start.

Karloff was retained, re-teaming him with Lee with whom he’d worked on 1931’s The Guilty Generation, but this would be his last time as the Monster. With such haste in its gestation, it’s remarkable that Son holds up as well as it does, which is principally due to the performances, both leading and supporting. Not only does Karloff still manage to earn sympathy in a return to mute status after his speaking Monster in Bride - an aspect he always felt had detracted from his pathos -  but Universal’s loss of another key player, Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, was covered with great aplomb by Basil Rathbone. Clive had sadly died in June 1937 from tuberculosis, possibly exacerbated by his ruinous alcohol addiction.

Born in 1892 in Johannesburg, South Africa as the middle child of five to British parents, a mining engineer father and a violinist mother, by the age of three Philip St John Basil Rathbone’s life was already the stuff of adventure movies. The family was forced to flee the country when Rathbone’s father was accused by the Boers of being a British spy in the inflamed period leading to the Boer War. Like many well-meaning sons of well-meaning fathers, Rathbone began his professional life in insurance to please his old man before taking to the stage in Sir Frank Benson’s company, which took him to America and the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End. WWI provided him with a distinguished services career that earned him a Military Cross.

By 1938, Rathbone’s film credits cornered the market in a type of suave English villainy that still seems to entrance Hollywood casting directors to this day. His lofty bearing had graced such illustrious costume dramas as the Errol Flynn vehicles Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood in which he played Sir Guy of Gisborne. Additional lustre to his name were the two Supporting Actor Academy Award nominations he’d gained for Romeo and Juliet (1936) and If I were King in 1938. Best known to film fans ultimately as the title role (and for many the definitive interpretation) in Fox’s Sherlock Holmes series, he was actually waiting to start work on the first, The Hound of the Baskervilles, once Son of Frankenstein was wrapped. His pedigree explains why Karloff was to receive second billing to him – and under his full name now rather than simply Karloff. Rathbone had never made a horror film before and despite later disparaging this one, he gives Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein a shaded and developing character as the film goes on.

The task of writing this all-important revival was given to Wyllis (credited as Willis ) Cooper, a busy radio script writer who had made his name creating and directing the famously grisly radio horror series Lights Out for NBC. Having seen The Bride of Frankenstein first, he’d realised there was no sensible way to recast Clive’s performance so instead he focused the plot around a son, Wolf Frankenstein, whose inheritance would be inescapably more than the title and property of his notorious father. The original title was announced as After Frankenstein which had the merit of being a little more subtle than the final choice. Ultimately, Cooper’s script was treated by Lee as a blueprint rather than a set text. The director was prone to rewriting on-set which translated into extra energy of performances albeit with the accompanying unsettling of nerves from actors struggling with last-minute changes.

The supporting performances are as vital to the success of Son as the lead actors. Lionel Atwill, highly-regarded as an urbane character himself, is a memorably intrepid Inspector Krogh - later spoofed with wickedly funny accuracy by Kenneth Mars in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. I believe the secret weapon of the movie though is Bela Lugosi’s broken-necked servant Ygor, pulling off a supporting performance of rare and surprisingly poignant effect.

The former studio stable-mate of Karloff had seen his name lose its sparkle over the years since Dracula in 1931, a fatal turn of events in a hard industry where a perceived success image can be as important off-screen as on. Ironically, by mostly clinging to a kind of frosty imperious auto-pilot in his acting style that always recalled his most famous part as the Count, he had failed to capitalise on where else that name value could have taken him. Nothing would have become him beyond Dracula more than the leaving of it – behind. He needed the money though and with his finances always in a parlous state, had to take what he could get including vampire-related personal appearances. Such was his lack of bargaining power that Universal reduced his salary by 50% to just $500 a week and to attempt a dirty trick of cost-cutting even further by having all his scenes filmed in one week. Happily, director Lee once more proved a champion by in turn pulling the fast one of contriving Lugosi’s services to be needed across the entire shooting schedule.

However, there were glimmers of the real actor beneath the endless regurgitations of caped, glowering faux-bloodsuckers and scientists. As the downtrodden sailor of Phantom Ship and here as the crippled peasant Ygor, somehow playing blue-collar victims released a humanity and subtlety within Lugosi that was far more touching than the hardened regal shell of his villains. Lee gave Lugosi free reign to develop Ygor acknowledging “the interpretation he gave us was imaginative, and totally unexpected”. Perhaps also it was dawning on him that he needed more humility in life than the damaging high-handedness with which he would react to the offered roles he considered beneath him. He regularly citing his previous fame as a Hungarian matinee idol, telling the pre-TV journalist Ed Sullivan: ‘I played every type of role in Budapest, but here they only think I can scare children.’

Ygor was not present in Cooper’s initial drafts of the script. Lugosi was actually first considered for the Inspector role, named Neumüller originally, before Lee transferred him to henchman duties. Grinning with sickening pleasure through mangled teeth and a rough beard of yak hair courtesy of Jack Pierce and sporting a raised frozen right shoulder, Lugosi’s eyes burn into audiences and his village accusers. Ygor’s broken neck is the result of a failed lynch mob that took eight men to hang him, all of whom he has remembered for a future day of reckoning. Lugosi had fun in the part, and to his credit allows the facial disguise to dampen the temptation for histrionics, rendering him as pathetic as the Monster, but saving his most telling means of expression for a pleasing delicacy of pointed line delivery. His is the first face we see in the film, fleetingly surveying proceedings from the window of Castle Frankenstein.

One of the major themes of Son of Frankenstein, that of manifest familial destiny, emerges almost immediately. The old town of Frankenstein’s councillors led by the Burgomeister (Lawrence Grant) hotly debate the imminent arrival of Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein who will take over his infamous father’s castle. Inspector Krogh coolly looks on while the Burghers are forced to accept their leader’s decision to hand over to the son what may be the means of reliving the nightmare caused by his father.  "The old Baron Frankenstein gave me this chest of papers to deliver to his son, and deliver it I shall."

We switch to the Frankenstein family on the incoming train, and what a beguilingly wholesome and modern family they are to plunge into this touchy time-warp. Rathbone’s Wolf and his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) are clearly a loving couple with a healthy sense of humour. “Not much like America is it?” remarks Wolf as the rainy bleak landscape goes by. In tow is their personable four year-old son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), a ringleted male Shirley Temple of cheeky insouciance. They are met by a huge turn-out of the villagers yet soon disabused of any pretence to being welcomed: “We come to meet you, not to greet you”, says the Burgomeister, bluntly fulfilling his duty of delivering the inheritance chest to Wolf and blocking their new neighbour’s attempt to ameliorate his father’s reputation.

The new Baron’s innate confidence brushes off this hostile reception. Greeted better by their staff, butler Benson and housekeeper Amelia (Edgar Norton and Emma Dunn) he even sees the potential medieval charm in their cavernous new home of Castle Frankenstein. What we observe is a marvellously spooky Expressionist set courtesy of Supervising Art Director Jack Otterson, whose decorative design work adorned parts of the Empire State Building and would go on to include other universal horror films and the Sherlock Holmes sequels. There’s a subtle sense of unease in the off-kilter shadows thrown across the sparse furnishings. Look out as well for the carved wild boar heads looming over either side of the family dining table as they eat. If that doesn’t hint at impending danger, Amelia decodes the strange bed positions with the famous omen: “If the house is filled with dread, place the beds at heat-to-head”.

It is when Wolf reads the old Baron’s letter bequeathing his research that we see Rathbone’s skilful performance begin to change shade. His breezy bonhomie and the naïve candle held for his father’s innocence darkens as he becomes seduced by the forbidden fruit of knowledge tantalisingly dangled before him. Baron Henry was indeed guilty of the blasphemous arrogance that revived uncontrollable life from the dead, misunderstood, vulnerable then hounded into homicidal rage – and offers his son the drug-dealer’s hook that now Wolf has the means to improve daddy’s design:

“If you, like me, burn with the irresistible desire to penetrate the unknown, carry on. The path is cruel and torturous, carry on. I put secret after truth, you will be hated, blasphemed and condemned. You have inherited the fortune of the Frankensteins. I trust you will not inherit their fate.”

Surely this well-balanced, compassionate chap would reject such a ghastly irresponsible inheritance? But he is a Frankenstein and that perverse reverse psychology calls to him down the blood-line. No-one leaves this family business. His fate, and once again that of the townsfolk, is sealed.

As if listening in, Inspector Krogh makes a timely appearance, offsetting the earlier coldness of the local councillors with a decent man’s sincere desire to be of assistance after warning Wolf that his family is in danger of villager vigilantism if they ever suspect him of continuing his father’s work. Krogh admirably controls any desire for retribution he has, considering the Monster ripped off his arm: “"One does not easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.".  He also informs Wolf of a series of unexplained murders whereby the victims’ hearts burst and all featured discolouration at the brain base. Even this doesn’t perturb the Baron. “Why should we fear anything?” he blithely asks his wife in private.

We know only too well how powerful the genetic tractor beam is pulling Wolf to his father’s laboratory, hidden away on a hill-top next to a splendid indoor sulphurous pit of mud bubbling away. Here, Ygor makes his presence known and delivers a beautifully judged speech recounting his punishment at the hands of the townsfolk for body-snatching:

“…They broke my neck. They said I was dead. Then they cut me down. They threw me in here, long ago. They wouldn't bury me in holy place like churchyard. Because I stole bodies...they said. So, Ygor is dead!...Nobody can mend Ygor's neck. It's alright.”

The past pain capped by the resignation in that final line is heart-breaking and probably represents the finest moments of Lugosi’s film work. Like Michael Caine’s Peachy Carnahan at the end of The Man Who Would be King, he shows us a rogue spirit brutalised into a touching, seemingly broken humility.

Ygor’s competitor for the violins though is the Monster, who shocks Wolf with his belated appearance lying injured on a slab. Ygor soothes the encounter by perversely bridging a thematic connection between Wolf and the Monster as the unlikeliest of brothers. Henry is in a real sense father to them both, giving a second life to the Monster as much as the first to his biological son. Ygor extends the notion in pointing out the bizarre actual co-creator of the Monster: “His mother was lightning” – ironic in that the same natural life-force that revived him has also struck him into near catatonia since. Since they share the same paternity Wolf is arguably now his brother’s keeper, a legacy burden of responsibility that locks him into a fated path as an even more ‘modern Prometheus’ than the old Baron of Shelley’s novel. To emphasise his determination, he corrects the villager’s disrespectful burial plate on Henry’s coffin from ‘Maker of Monsters’ to ‘Maker of MEN’.

Such is Wolf’s scientific modernity that for the first time we understand the superhuman intricacies within the Monster: blood-cells that battle each other as separate entities and a heart-rate of over 250 beats per minute - even more impressive when we discover this is in spite of two bullets being lodged there.  Despite Wolf’s new-fangled education, the secret of the Monster’s unearthly physicality seem to be the nebulous-sounding “cosmic rays which probably aren’t part of a medical student’s syllabus.

The locals don’t need to be in the laboratory to sense that a slumbering beast of infernal danger has been awoken. Ygor is interrogated by Krogh and the committee about what may be going on at the castle. He gloats at the dark absurdity behind their threatened re-hanging of him for non-compliance. As if the Grim Reaper operates as his defence counsel, he knows what rough justice is befalling each of his original executors : “They die dead. I die alive!” The theme of death is ever-present. Just as persistent on the case is the good Inspector, whose detective instincts are further heightened when young Peter mentions being visited in his room by a giant.

Before Krogh can act on his hunches, we witness a touching sequence where the newly-revived Monster sees himself in the mirror. Karloff’s gentle humanity characteristically comes through the elaborate make-up and sheepskin-bedecked costume. Though the actor is somewhat more well-fed than the lean and hungry actor of first inhabiting the role, there is real poignancy in his child-like confusion and fear at seeing his own monstrous reflection. Being rendered mute again makes his inability to communicate that vulnerability even more touching.

The Monster’s step-brother however has lost touch with his own humanity. Wolf is now fully seduced by the dark side, his natural confidence inflated into omnipotence by the same God Complex fatally aroused within his father. He will bend the laws of nature and others to his will: “My problem is how to make Ygor obey me” he muses, a Machiavellan sentiment unrecognisable from the benign chap we saw at the start.

As the villagers gather outside the castle for the obligatory storming, we focus on a marvellous scene of actorly duelling between Atwill and Rathbone as Krogh attempts to crack Wolf’s mask of innocence over a darts match. The darts serve as little rapiers of venom exchanged by each combatant, amplified by their thrust and parry of verbal attack and defence. Atwill delivers his blows with steely composure to Rathbone, who deflects them with a suitable mounting nerviness. Admittedly this scene is hard to watch without referencing the hilarious parody version in the aforementioned Young Frankenstein where Kenneth Mars and Gene Wilder take the situation to gleefully inventive sight-gag levels.

Meanwhile, Ygor has been using the Monster as a weapon of his own.  Far from the resigned victim figure he appears, he has been a shadowy assassin of retribution, aiming the Creature at those committee members who tried to hang him and adding the interfering Benson to the death-toll.
Even that most innocent of all protagonists, the Monster, loses control to ruthless desire, much like his brother. When Ygor is shot dead by Wolf, the Monster’s grief is palpable yet the director wisely allows time for a disturbing transformation inside him as that mourning is expertly morphed by Karloff into snarling, homicidal intent hell-bent on revenge.  He wrecks the Frankenstein family laboratory before the spell of evil breaks over Wolf just in time and he incongruously Tarzan-swings to knock the Monster into the ugly sulphur-pit.

The epilogue is so rushed as to be unintentionally funny; Wolf and his family leave by train but not before bequeathing the Frankenstein estate to the villagers. The almost unseemly haste suggests they daren’t linger in front of this mob. 

The same unseemly speed was applied off-screen to the completion of the film. Production on Son of Frankenstein over-ran until the 4th January 1939 which meant a frantic post-production period. Lee managed the astounding feat of readying the film for a preview two days later – which meant it was able to honour the set release date of the ominous-sounding Friday the 13th of that month. Sadly, one of the unfortunate casualties of necessary cuts for timing was the small villager role played by Dwight Frye who had struggled to capitalise on his acting association with the earlier Dracula and Frankenstein.

Son of Frankenstein single-handedly put Universal back into profit, confirming that there was lucrative life left in the reactivated corpse of the horror film and enabled the studio to confidently put more franchise sequels into production. Although Karloff and Lugosi would stay with the Frankenstein franchise in varying roles and mixed success, during the filming of Son, Karloff’s wife Dorothy produced another legacy of their own in the form of their first child Sara born on Karloff’s own 51st birthday of Wednesday 23rd November...

Monday, 8 August 2016


Originally, Boris Karloff was to follow up his role in The Invisible Ray with another film for the esteemed Michael Balcon’s Gaumont-British company back in England with whom he’d made The Ghoul. This was to be Dr Nikola, but the increasing sensitivity of the British censors meant that the script was considered too shocking for the public. Rather than be paid off, Karloff’s high-powered agent Myron Selznick, (David O’s brother), arranged a replacement movie which slotted in after The Walking Dead. This was to be The Man Who Changed His Mind, also known in America as The Man Who Lived Again.

The former title, for the British market, has a touch of whimsy about it, as does the film. It centres around a mad scientist Dr Laurience, self-proclaimed “greatest authority on the human brain” who perfects a way of extracting the “thought content” from the brain, to be stored and transferred into another subject like the modern downloading of computer data. Rather than descend into grim horror, the tone is at times almost playful yet never spoils the entertaining daftness of the material. Indeed, it’s a spoonful of sugar that helps the ludicrously hard-to swallow plot palatably go down. This was largely due to Karloff’s director, Robert Stevenson, whose light touch from here went on as you might guess to sprinkle Disney stardust over Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and two of the Herbie films. The script by John L. Balderston, Sidney Gilliat and L. Du Garde Peach wasn’t finished when Karloff reported to the studio, so he and his wife Dorothy amused themselves with the London theatre and socialising until Stevenson was ready for him in March of 1936.

 The part of Dr Laurience is bereft of any unsightly disfigurements for Karloff. He looks normal, albeit with a restless chain-smoking habit and the simmering arrogance of all misunderstood geniuses. He recruits surgeon Dr Clare Wyatt (Stevenson’s real-life wife Anna Lee) whose scalpel is presumably as precise as her grating received pronunciation of the period. She nearly comes as a pair when her over-protective boyfriend Dick (John Loder) insists on trying to stick to her at every chance. To offset the threat of cloying lovey-doveyness, there’s Donald Calthrop as the waspish Clayton, Laurience’s wheelchair-bound assistant. While he waits for hopeful treatment for an intra-cranial cyst, he serves as his boss’s King Lear fool, mischievously telling truth to power.

Wyatt is appalled when he demonstrates his breakthrough amidst twiddling dials and crackling strobes to swap the minds of two chimpanzees, one calm and the other unstable. (During filming, the poor chimps both proved a handful, being untrained and adding to a less than savoury shoot at the studio’s temporary Islington sound stages). Wyatt insists that he cannot play God so ruthlessly. “No, I can’t do that” Laurience agrees softly, looking furtively away with exactly the opposite intent.

Aside from the mercifully brief vivisection - remember, this is the director who will delight children of all ages with magical nannies and an anthropomorphised Volkswagen - Stevenson also lightens the load of any ethical arguments to do with the soul until the end. Instead, Laurence is shown being laughed out of a lecture theatre for the preposterousness of his claims. It’s just as well then that he has already made a somewhat Faustian bargain with newspaper magnate Lord Haslewood, Dick’s father, played by Shakespearian stage actor Frank Cellier. In return for research funding at the mogul’s self-aggrandising Haslewood Institute, Laurience allows himself to be touted like a celebrity columnist of the cerebellum.

Haslewood inadvertently becomes an even more involved benefactor than he would like when Laurience opts to give Clayton a new lease of life at his expense. Haslewood forces his employee’s hand to some degree by deciding to cut off Laurience’s funding and confiscate all his research under his devilish contract. Cellier is fun to watch in the set-pieces of body-swap comedy where he struggles to pass himself off as Haslewood at an editor’s meeting and with his son – almost trial runs for Stevenson of his later Disney comedy sequences. We even get a dash of naughtiness when ‘Haslewood’ realises his host’s relationship with his secretary Miss Briggs is a little more than professional. Hubert Bath’s music underlines the quirky, fanciful situations on hand.

Lest we spin too much candyfloss, events do take a darker turn when Clayton demands that Laurience ‘rehouse’ him again on discovering Haslewood has a long-standing heart condition. He overplays his hand, causing the scientist to strangle him as a formerly expedient annoyance in favour of Laurience’s next plan: exchanging his own mind with Dick so the young man goes to the chair for his murder and he goes free. However, ‘twixt cup and lip the cops step in and Laurience falls fatally from a window whilst escaping. There’s just time for a too-brief heroic appearance from the much-loved Cecil Parker to save Dick’s life by transferring him back into his own body. To remind us who the star of the picture is though, Karloff gets to deliver a sobering moral pay-off before he dies, telling Wyatt “You were right. The human mind is sacred”. He urges her to destroy his work - with just enough time to wryly note the irony that his potential life extension was only taken seriously by him dying first.

The Man Who Changed His Mind moves well and is handled knowingly enough for the mostly unbelievable shenanigans to be enjoyed. Karloff also had opportunities to reunite with family members he saw so little of back home, and the chance to strengthen his legacy of working hard in defence of actors’ conditions. Stephen Jacobs points out in Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster that before returning to America, he was able to meet with British Equity, their closest equivalent to America’s Screen Actors Guild at that time, and ‘was told Equity was definitely in favour of an agreement with the Guild’. This was a great boost to increasing professional support on both sides of the Atlantic, sweetened by Karloff’s keenness to promote Americans joining Equity when they worked in Britain.

A sadder epilogue is that under the tyranny of neutering censorship both in Hollywood and Britain, this was to be one of the last horror films for two years until the unexpected happy resurgence of Universal's second wave rose again into production in 1938...

Wednesday, 3 August 2016


“Look at me and see what seventeen years in the grave has done to me…”

The downward slide of Tod Browning’s directing career had begun with his most recent film, the disappointing Mark of the Vampire, and increasingly he found it hard to get projects off the ground at M-G-M. He wanted to make a voodoo tale called The Witch of Timbuctoo at the end of 1935 but this was blocked at script stage due to pressure from the British censors. In The Monster Show, Browning aficionado David J. Skal records: “Great Britain had requested the removal of all black characters for fear that the witchcraft scenes would ‘stir up trouble’ among blacks under British colonial rule” - a level of appalling fear-mongering racism that also weirdly echoes the plot reasoning we have just seen for the extinction of the occult knowledge by the authorities within Revolt of the Zombies.
Browning was however able to reshape his story into The Devil Doll (1936) which combined his oft-used theme of revenge with voodoo-esque hocus-pocus in modern-day France. It was loosely based on Abraham Merritt’s 1932 novel Burn Witch, Burn, one of the writer’s works steeped in his fascination for witchcraft and the occult. Browning enlisted experienced genre screenwriters Garrett Fort, Guy Endore and credited director-turned-actor Erich Von Stroheim to weave together a film that not only moves kinetically but also its audience in an unusually affecting ending for a hard-nosed vengeance picture.

The premise is based around Lionel Barrymore (last seen in Browning’s Mark of the Vampire) as Paul Lavond, one of two escaped convicts who has spent seventeen years boiling with the desire for revenge after being framed as a murderer and robber of his own bank by his three partners. His fellow escapee is mad scientist Marcel, desperate to get them safe haven back with his wife with whom he has been experimenting on something unrevealed yet potentially world-changing. He is played by Henry B. Walthall, who gained fame as the Confederate General locking horns with the Ku Klux Klan in Griffith’s controversial Birth of a Nation. The two fugitives are taken in by Marcel’s equally eccentric wife Malita, embodied by Rafaela Ottiano who specialised in memorably macabre roles. Possessed of fierce eyes and a Nefertiti white hair streak recalling Elsa Lanchester’s Bride of Frankenstein, Malita is the Lady Macbeth-like engine urging on Marcel’s crackpot technology.

The nutcase couple take Lavond into their confidence, showing him their incredible results in miniaturising living dogs to one-sixth normal size. (The effects in this sequence rely on a fairly basic double-exposure, which only noticeably mars itself in the evident outlines around the superimposed figures). They base their rationale for such crazed ingenuity on the potential for reducing the global human population and future resource shortages.  The only downside is that shrinkage of the living atoms also erases the subject’s memory – yet that opens up the possibility for voodoo-style mental subjugation in the ‘right’ hands. Lavond’s horror at seeing them progress to their “peasant halfwit” servant girl Lachna (Grace Ford) is tempered by the macchiavellian Malita pointing out this usefulness of Marcel’s technology in enabling a unique method of justice for Lavond if they relocate to his home of Paris. She uses the sudden death of her husband mid-process as emotional leverage to persuade Lavond.

Meanwhile in gay Paree, Lavond’s trio of sinister ex-partners have now read in the paper that their old friend is on the loose, so with feared retribution on the cards they post a 100,000 franc reward themselves for his capture. The plot now heads into the familiar horror territory of systematic revenge carried out on the multiple guilty parties, rendered even more familiar by Browning recycling his leading man disguising himself as a little old lady  - Lon Chaney in 1927’s The Unholy Three (see my Chaney reviews 12/2015) - to undertake his plans undisturbed under the frilly cloak of an elderly lady selling toys.

To be fair, the drag impersonation allows Barrymore an added dimension of compassion and vulnerability that prevents his grim, furrow-browed mission calcifying into a one-note performance. This is emphasised in his scenes with his daughter Lorraine (Maureen O’ Sullivan, who had been playing Tarzan’s Jane for M-G-M and went on to a long and praiseworthy career as well as being mother to actress Mia Farrow). He cannot bring himself to reveal his real identity when he visits her at the launderette she has been reduced to slaving in. He must care for her at a remove whilst in disguise, which only fuels his need for vengeance even more.

One by one, the three banker scumbags are dispensed using the rough and bizarre justice of Marcel’s scientific breakthrough - and some much more impressive special-effect scale work. Arthur Hohl’s Radin is astounded by the old lady’s amazing, obedient ‘toy’ horse and visits her, whereupon he is paralysed into becoming a servile mini-mannequin himself. Next up, Lavond’s old dame sells a Lachna ‘doll’ to the wife of the second criminal, the bearded and rotund Couvet - Marx Brothers’ film veteran Robert Greig – and negotiates some convincingly- upscaled bedroom set furniture to administer a bedside manner of poisoned-dagger paralysis to him and steal his wife’s jewelled necklace.

If this is beginning to sound like the story of Browning’s The Unholy Three, the blatant reworking goes further: a police inspector comes to make routine theft enquiries connecting the old lady to the robbery and the ensuing furtive hiding of the jewel plays as an almost identical but less tense rehash of Chaney’s scene in the original movie.

By now, the last evil member of the triumvirate has the benefit of a police protection detail around him yet Lavond has threatened him in a encoded letter that unless he “Confess and be saved”, he will still die at the stroke of ten. Even a roomful of cops can’t save him from the remote-controlled Radin, hidden with macabre humour as a Christmas tree bauble. As he is about to stabbed in the leg by the mini-assassin, Radin owns up and Lavond is at last exonerated.

Usually in horror films of the period, this is where the movie ends and often in a detrimentally rushed climax. One of the plus points of the extra running time that takes The Devil Doll to 78 minutes is that after Malita fails to convince Lavond to go on with the work, the purgative laboratory blaze that follows permits a little more breathing space for character resolution and leads him to make restitution with his daughter. Their last meeting is most sensitively handled by the actors and Browning. Lavond, as himself, pretends to be a friend instead of revealing who he really is to Lorraine. He expresses all his pent-up love, regret and future hopes for her as if conveying them as a second-hand message – his final parting atonement. He leaves her and her boyfriend, exiting with the self-sacrificing heroism of Rick Blaine in Casablanca and giving The Devil Doll an unexpected and touching ending.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


“You have an authority about you…like a man who had suddenly found himself”

Four years after the Halperin brothers made White Zombie, they made what was conceived as a sequel but no equal in 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, whose title promises all the action and ghoulish thrills that the resulting film in no way lives up to. Virtually free of any horror or interest and a contrived transplanting of voodoo from the Haitian setting of its forerunner, what’s left is a turgid vehicle of excruciating doomed romance, dull dialogue and laughably poor production values, filmed in less than a month.

Like its predecessor, Revolt was directed by Victor Halperin and produced by his brother Edward. They collaborated on the workmanlike script with Rollo Lloyd (unfinished when the shoot was supposed to begin that January), so at least the blame for the dreadfully clichéd romantic scenes is shared further.  The opening is at least an appetising premise: an on-screen Foreword conveying that the story is inspired by the ‘scret archives of the fighting nations’ during World War One. - if the unfolding film feels like a rushed Republic serial of forced sensationalism, here is where it begins with an underscore to the text that sounds very reminiscent of Flash Gordon.

We are plunged straight into war-time intrigue on the Franco-Austrian border in which the French colonial forces have caught a priest from whom they harness the occult forces of zombification to create a ‘robot army’ of the Cambodian undead to fight on the trenches. They are shown withstanding bullet hits impassively and marching over their enemies to winning effect. Soon however, the army begins to fear that such weaponisation of colonised slave labour could be used to overthrow the superior white race. With the typical military mind-set of ‘If we’re afraid to kill with it, then we’ll just kill it’, they decide to mount an expedition to Cambodia’s Angkor to find and destroy the supernatural knowledge to stop anyone else from using it. Meanwhile, the priest is murdered by the suave goatee-bearded General Mazovia - musical theatre singer Roy D’Arcy -  an expert on dead languages. His character may be a rare case of a resumé bullet dodged by Bela Lugosi perhaps, although unbeknownst to Lugosi he does appear in the film (his disembodied hypnotic eyes from White Zombie are double-exposed on-screen at key moments, possibly without permission).

From here, the wheels come right off the transport as the rest of the movie eschews supernatural combat or indeed a rollicking explorer yarn in favour of the drearily played love triangle between explorers Armand Louque (Dean Jagger, slumming it before his later Academy Award winner in 1949 for Twelve O’Clock High), Robert Noland’s Clifford Grayson and Claire Duval (Dorothy Stone). Duval is the flirtatious and dangerous nexus between the two men, using Armand to make Clifford jealous by accepting his proposal of marriage, which allows Stone to display a steely edge underneath her feminine wiles like that of Mae Busch. Clifford is a selfish go-getter whose ruthlessness makes Armand reflect on whether he could ever be so uncaring in pursuit of his aims…

Revolt barely even pretends to be the exotic locations it represents. The Halperins sent a camera crew to Angkor to film background shots; the copious use of it in back -projection is not only evident in the explorers’ expository tent scene with Angkor Wat temple in the background, but even more risibly in the sequence where Armand and a native wade through water to the temple. This is laughably ‘achieved’ by pointless close-ups of both actors statically loping side-to-side in front of a backdrop of receding jungle river footage (in long-shot they are at least credibly moving along the sound-stage’s water set).

The cast plods further through the interminable foliage of thwarted love tripe while we long for a somnambulistic shuffle or two if not a full-blown zombie attack – instead of George Romero we get E.M. Forster. Armand gives up Claire on realising she loved Clifford all along. This scene is directed using all the horrendous clichés of old acting – the sing-song declamations of love that border more on operetta than spoken dialogue, the turning away of one’s face from the other because…the emotions are…unbearable (and they are for this audience member as well)

 “I wish you all the happiness you deserve” Armand mutters darkly as she goes, which to be fair at least stirs up a little affecting moment from Jagger where in private he laugh-cries at what he is losing in love, the combination of tears and self-realisation showing a glimmer of the quality he had as an actor. This then becomes the spur for Armand to develop that missing backbone and go rogue. He finds the secret rituals to gain power over humans, beginning with his man-servant. Unfortunately, his employers don’t take kindly to unauthorised missions and fire him. No matter, for now he’s morphing from self-assertion to self-realising God complex, well on the way to becoming exactly the type of megalomaniac people-puppeteer the expedition was designed to prevent. Armand is forced into an uneasy alliance with General Mazovia, though it’s unclear why as Armand’s arcane knowledge of voodoo surely trumps Mazovia threats of personal sabotage.

It isn’t until the very end of the film that we are finally rewarded with a brief moment of action, and before that we must endure soap-opera dreariness surrounding Clifford’s wedding to Claire. Armand heeds the advice of his friend Max Macdonald (Carl Stockdale) in how he should bear this, whose gravity always acts as his conscience. In real life, busy film actor Stockdale was involved in a matter where a crisis of conscience was more rewardingly placed. He testified in the famously scandalous murder case of film director William Desmond Taylor in 1922 that he was with Charlotte Shelby the night that she is widely believed to have killed Taylor. Stockdale was a close friend of her daughter Mary Miles Minter (Taylor’s lover) and this may have prompted him to present a perjurative alibi in her favour.

Back to the plot and the far less intriguing on-screen shenanigans are compounded by more artery-clogging sugary sentiment as Armand and the frankly fickle Claire twitter like budgerigars about how he can win her love after all by renouncing his new-found powers. Leaving aside the matter of whether it’s worth giving up world dominating super-abilities for a woman who changes her choice of partner like bed-linen, there is no time for anything except relinquishing his hold on all the players – cringingly conveyed by a montage of actors blinking in sudden wakefulness. The natives revolting is more palatable than the revolting melodrama, and as they rise against the white explorers’ research station in an all-too-brief siege of excitement, Armand sacrifices himself to their guns, thus proving that a good actor in a bad movie never goes unpunished.

It only remains for Stockdale to concuss the movie in attempting to raise the bar by misquoting Prometheus from Longfellow’s 1875 poem The Masque of Pandora: “Whom the Gods (would) destroy, they first make mad”.

A group who were made mad by Revolt of the Zombies (other than any ticket-buyers) was Amusement Securities Corporation, co-financier of the earlier White Zombie. Their amusement was unsecured by the mention of the word ‘zombie’ in the name, which their contract allegedly gave them sole rights to for film titles. Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead refers to a redistribution contract the company took out which meant that this unlawful awful offspring arguably represented unfair competition. They filed suit against the Halperins before its release and eventually won the case, being awarded $11,500 and the brothers’ enforced removal of pollutant claims that Revolt was a sequel to White Zombie.