Monday, 30 January 2017
Lon Chaney Jr was cast again by Hal Roach in the prehistoric dinosaur actioner One Million Years BC (1940) as Akhoba, the Rock Tribe’s caveman father to Victor Mature. Amongst the Oscar-nominated special effects, this film is notable for Chaney’s attempt to craft his own make-up in respectful imitation of his father, stymied however by understandable union regulations. Universal soon had him under contract and his first horror film in his new flush of fame was the lead in the surprisingly effective quickie Man Made Monster (1941). Five years previously Harry Essex’s script almost became another of the Karloff and Lugosi team-ups under the title The Electric Man with the pair playing the victim Dan McCormack and mad scientist Dr Rigas respectively. The plot’s marauding, luminous protagonist was felt too reminiscent to their double-act in 1936’s The Invisible Ray (see my review dated 21/7/2016) and was shelved till Universal’s new regime recycled it.
Shot in only three weeks, Man Made Monster was indicative of Universal putting little weight of expectation behind it at a relatively very low budget of just $86,000. They couldn’t have known that under director George Waggner it would emerge is a credible introduction to Chaney in the genre. His character of Dan McCormack echoes the eager-to-please guilelessness of Lennie in Of Mice and Men as carnival performer Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man whose phoney act hints at his destiny when he is the sole survivor of a bus crash that crashes into a live electric pylon.
By sheer and contrived coincidence, Dan is befriended by Dr John Lawrence, (another kind, dignified authority portrayal by It’s a Wonderful Life’s Samuel S. Hinds) who just happens to have an associate obsessed with that very source of power: Lionel Atwill’s Dr Paul Rigas. Atwill does his best to represent maniacal self-serving menace in contrast to Lawrence’s benevolence in having Dan live with his family while under observation. By now Atwill was enjoying a run of Universal horrors that began with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein (reviewed here) through till the year before his death in House of Dracula (1945). He would be gratefule for the work as during this period in 1943 he suffered the five-year probation sentence (see 21/4/2016) that blacklisted his reputation into a humiliating dearth of good roles.
Knowing his own star in the ascendant, Chaney is given much more to work with and seizes the role of Dan with compassion and presence. His energy on-screen is boosted by Rigas secretly blasting him with electricity while Lawrence is away at a convention. The melgalomaniac believes he can create a race of ‘electralised’ souped-up supermen, invulnerable to weakness – “whose only want is electricity” - and Dan’s odd survival makes him the perfect guinea-pig. Over time, the electrical jolts turn from tolerance to a ruinous addiction in Dan who gradually becomes a listless walking shell of his former self, fatally dependent upon increasing daily doses to feel anything at all. Chaney earns our sympathy with his gradual decline from sunny innocence to a haunted and damaged victim. Make-up wizard Jack Pierce augments this deterioration with etched lines of aging to Chaney’s face through which he emotes his heartfelt confusion. His alienation is amplified by a reverse Midas effect that causes crackling bolts of electricity to sear anything he might touch. No wonder his canine pal, Lawrence’s dog Corky, keeps his distance.
Such is Rigas’s merciless drive that finally he shocks Dan to laboratory capacity, erasing Dan’s former lightness of soul into a luridly glowing, lumbering servile automaton encased in an insulating rubber suit. John P Fulton of Invisible Man effects fame provides a suitable luminescence for Dan’s face and arms while Rigas sheds further light on his own inner machinations to Lawrence: “Look at him. The wonder of the future – controlled by a superior intelligence!” No prizes for guessing who the latter is. Rigas orders Dan the battery-powered battering ram to kill Lawrence by breaking his neck. He is powerless to refuse.
The aftermath is that Lawrence’s daughter June (Anne Nagel) appeals to William Davidson’s slightly wooden District Attorney Stanley for Dan’s innocence to no avail. As if he hasn’t been charged enough, the ensuing court case results in Dan sentenced to an electric chair of all things and a phosphorescent rampage that would have been welcome if it wasn’t off-screen to save money.
No matter, there’s still some juice left firstly to power Atwill in a finely chilling scene with Nagel, looming over her with a sickeningly perverse grin of anticipation before strapping her to the operating table. He intends to take his sadism to the even higher voltage of preying on a suspected more potent female subject. Suddenly Dan enters to save the day. Like Frankenstein’s lightning-induced offspring, he channels his rage against his quasi-creator, electrocuting him through a door-knob before carrying June away.
The police manhunt is now on for Dan the marauding lightbulb. June’s boyfriend, newshound Mark Adams (Frank Albertson, who later played Tom Cassidy in Psycho) accompanies them with the D.A. and even Corky the dog in hot pursuit. The ultimate tragic end for our hapless hero comes courtesy of a ripping time for his suit, snagged on an electrified fence, which may sound prosaic, yet Chaney senior would have been proud of his son’s movie demise. There is an affecting physicality to the slow buckling of his legs under the terminal energy leakage; an otherwise rushed moment is given poignant weight, something that both father and son could demonstrate with wordless power.
It is left to Corky the loyal dog to mourn his friend and for June’s reporter beau to display a rare conscience by burning his notes to save future electro-exploitation of humanity.
George Waggner continued in the genre with two more releases in 1941 that we will examine: the castle treasure-hunt Horror Island and then more impressively guiding Lon Chaney Jr to true screen immortality as The Wolf Man.
Saturday, 28 January 2017
"I was all black and not breathing when I was born. My father ran out of the house with me and broke a hole in the ice in a nearby lake, and dunked me in time after time until he revived me." In April 1965 Nashville’s daily newspaper The Tennessean reported this sensational anecdote in an interview with an actor whose relationship with his father would forever be one of almost supernaturally dramatic influence. Whether or not it was true (the interviewee’s own son claims not), the story of how Lon Chaney Jr was shocked into life by his father is a great metaphor for his struggle and revival in the shadow of a great man.
Relationships between fathers and sons have always been potentially rich soil for drama. Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden and Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) focus on the paradoxical hard road when a son tries desperately to be his own man whilst still needing the approval of his dad. Eugene O’Neill’s searingly autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) magnifies this conflict with the added competitive jealousy of both generations of men sharing the same profession: the faded, tyrannical, still-roaring elder lion of the theatre and his physically weaker youngest scion trying to live up to a name that may be as much a curse as a blessing. This play in particular would have resonated tremendously with Lon Chaney Jr whose very name was a mantle forced unwillingly upon him.
Lon Chaney Jr was born Creighton Tull Chaney on February 10th 1906. His father was at the time a journeyman repertory theatre actor who hadn’t yet thought of a Hollywood screen career. The boy’s name was the surname of his mother Frances Cleva Creighton, a fellow actor who met Lon Chaney as a sixteen year-old chorus girl while on tour with the Columbia Comic Opera Company .
Lon supported his young family and toured with various musical comedy shows to make ends meet.
As Lon's slavery in the salt-mines of repertory continued into his late-twenties, his home life was another source of strain. His and Cleva’s marriage became rocky when she emerged as a cabaret singer of distinction, becoming their company’s prima donna. Lon no doubt suffered some professional jealousy as many actor couples can do between themselves, not to mention perhaps a traditional masculine pride hurt at being eclipsed by her while he laboured at the lower levels. The combination of this plus Cleva’s increasing alcohol addiction (later inherited by their son) eventually destroyed their relationship, resulting one night in a suicide attempt when she drank bichloride of mercury while Lon was on stage. One she had recovered, Lon divorced her in 1913, but this left a taint of professional scandal that would not go away, as well as permanent ruin to Cleva’s singing voice. Theatre producers were fearful of employing Lon with such a past. This, and not professional ambition, was the impetus for Lon Chaney seeking film work in Hollywood.
Creighton was brought up with two underlying sources of tension connected to his father. The most poignant was the discovery that his mother was still alive after years of being told by Lon that she had died. Allegedly after Lon senior died, Creighton traced her house and attempted to re-connect with her but the story goes that she pretended to be someone else on answering the door to avoid the painful reunion.
The most lasting familial clash was over Creighton’s desire to follow in his old man’s footsteps as an actor. By 1916, Lon was busy enough in movie work and a settled second marriage (to Hazel Hastings) to have Creighton live with him again full-time. Whilst it’s common for even successful show-business parents to dissuade their children from entering such a harsh and precarious profession, Chaney senior went a step further. He enrolled Creighton in a technical institute to train instead as a plumber, unwittingly repeating his own enduring of parental influence as Lon’s own father insisted on him learning a trade as a painter and decorator. Whether Lon’s quashing of his son’s ambition was out of any concealed competitiveness or the tough love of a parent’s concern, his living impact upon Creighton was tragically cut short when he died in 1930 from lung cancer aged just 47. Creighton had to suffer not only this loss but also his first career which foundered in the crippling hardships of the Great Depression.
There was nothing to stop Creighton now from returning to his real professional love of acting where for the next decade he toiled in the undistinguished lower levels of contract work as various heavies and bit parts for low-budget outfits like Republic and Mascot studios. In 1935, times were so hard that he reluctantly bowed to agent pressure and changed his name to the more marketable Lon Chaney Jr. To his credit, he would never otherwise have traded on his father’s name; James Cagney’s noteworthy biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) spoils its ending with the sentimental fiction of Chaney senior willingly gifting his make-up box to his son with ‘Jr’ added to the inscription.
Despite the reluctant name change to a perceived recognised ‘brand’, the new Lon Chaney Jr found it made little difference to his opportunities. To make ends meet he added stunt work to his skillset, performing everything from cliff falls to driving horses into rivers, which presumably was in demand for Poverty Row westerns and action film serials. Between 1937 and 1939 Chaney Jr churned out many unremarkable movies under a two-year contract at Twentieth Century-Fox who apparently only kept him on because he never asked for a raise come renewal time.
Despite the reluctant name change to a perceived recognised ‘brand’, the new Lon Chaney Jr found it made little difference to his opportunities. To make ends meet he added stunt work to his skillset, performing everything from cliff falls to driving horses into rivers, which presumably was in demand for Poverty Row westerns and action film serials. Between 1937 and 1939 Chaney Jr churned out many unremarkable movies under a two-year contract at Twentieth Century-Fox who apparently only kept him on because he never asked for a raise come renewal time.
It was while being this cost-effective though not career-effective good soldier that a major break came to Chaney from outside the movie industry. He bagged the seminal role of Lennie Smalls in the Los Angeles theatre transfer of the Broadway hit based on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Suddenly he struck gold as a talent in his own right playing the slow-witted yet lovable giant who fatally cannot control his brute strength. Fortunately for us his affecting performance is preserved in a tremendous film version directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939. For fans who’ve only ever seen Chaney’s horror roles he is a revelation, fully committing to the role’s heart-breaking, doomed innocence and misguided power reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. Burgess Meredith also makes a wonderful compassionate counterpoint to him as his diminutive best friend George.
The part of Lennie arguably typecast Chaney in audience’s minds for the rest of his career and yet there are much worse fates for an actor - like anonymity. As we will explore, his imposing physicality and feeling for victimhood would serve him busily if not always as illustriously as the overall legacies left by Karloff and Lugosi.He also came to prominence when Universal needed a younger actor than they who could handle without complaint the rigours of long make-up sessions and shooting schedules in arduous parts. Such qualities in fact earned him a double distinction: as the only actor ever to make a Universal horror icon entirely his own (no other star but he played The Wolf Man from origin film to the Abbott and Costello spin-offs), and the sole actor to inhabit everyone else’s monster franchise – as (son of) Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and in sequels to the Mummy...
Wednesday, 25 January 2017
In the life of the horror film mad scientist, curiosity and desire for medical breakthrough is not enough. There has to be a greater incentive, preferably one driven by throwing the extra generator switch of deep-seated emotion – the more unstable the better. One catalyst is the revenge motive: its milder expression being to prove wrong those ridiculing naysayers. They doubted or refused to understand your ideas – even more unforgivably they overlooked your obvious genius. At the more intense end, it is turbo-boosted into murder, serial murder even by using the fruits of one’s experiments to kill a supporting cast list deemed to have wronged you in some way.
The other spur to scientific godhood is the poignancy of personal tragedy. Has your dear wife or child died? Why, there’s no need to drown your sorrows or yourself when you just happen to have a laboratory of potential poised on the brink of bringing them back to life. What better way to test your obsessive theorising? No hired jury of inferior humans would blame you, driven insane as you are by grief (and, ahem, egomania). This second impetus propels the story of Columbia Studios’ 1941 sci-fi horror The Devil Commands rather than any occult influence suggested by the misleading title and satanic poster imagery. (The original working title of The Devil Say No is no clearer). It represented the last of Boris Karloff’s run of insane scientists for Columbia and was not a high-point to go out. This humdrum B-movie was actually an early career quickie from the later esteemed and vilified director Edward Dmytrk who went on to make the highly-regarded Crossfire in 1947 and the masterly naval courtroom drama The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954), between which he was persecuted by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee as one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten.
The film begins with a faux-literary voiceover of a young woman, regretful at the tale she must unfold of her father’s medical meddling and the closure she lacks. We are then introduced to Karloff who gamely and sincerely labours as Dr Julian Blair, madly focused on capturing the frequencies of human brain waves, a passion intensified when his beloved wife Helen (Shirley Warde) is killed in a car-crash on the rainy night of their daughter Anne (Amanda Duff)’s birthday. He is convinced that he can harness the residual echo of her previous last communication with him if only he can find enough receiver strength. An unexpected conduit to this crosses his path in the shape of a fraudulent medium Mrs Walters. Anne Revere gives the role plenty of self-possession (there’s none from any spirits as Blair demonstrates in exposing her séance tricks) in a performance worthy of Gale Sondegaard for sheer spooky formidability. In real life Revere used her strength of character when falling foul of the HUAC committee like Dmytrk. She was an active member of the Communist Party in 1951 and her admirable taking of the Fifth Amendment cost her twenty years of Hollywood work before her return in 1970.
Blair discovers that despite her charlatan paranormal act, Walters has the genuinely supernatural gift of radiating a high amount of electrical current. He feels this may be a vital bridge. if reversed, in absorbing the energy in the air from Helen’s departed soul. He hooks her up to a suit with headgear that resembles an unwieldy, old-fashioned deep-sea diver’s helmet, but tantalisingly her bodily battery doesn’t have quite enough juice. It is not only electricity that Walters projects however; this Machiavellian medium emanates far more in the way of evil. She positions herself as Blair’s Lady Macbeth, urging him on beyond humane consideration to cover up the accidental lobotomising of his assistant Karl (Ralph Penney) by fleeing the coop and continuing his experimentation again in seclusion in a far-off village.
The need for test subjects makes clandestine work hard though when it involves the necessary kidnapping of five bodies from the graveyard before they can be interred. The police take a dim view of such things. In fact they send over an officer with a fairly dim view of his own, Three Stooges’ regular company man Kenneth Macdonald as stupefyingly dreary redneck Sheriff Willis. To be fair, like the rest of the cast he is given dull dialogue to work with thanks to a script by Robert Hardy Andrews and Milton Gunzburg from William Sloane’s novel The Edge of Running Water. Warning the housekeeper (Dorothy Adams) of the locals’ beguiling sleeping-dog nature: “Folks can talk just so long – then there’s an explosion and a lot of people get hurt”. Certainly the first part is true. The Devil Commands but not with much urgency in this slow and talky programmer on its way to the climax. Blair’s last roll of the dice experimentally is to hook up Anne to his machinery when he realises she has always been present at the strongest receipt of Helen’s signals.
The plot culminates in Blair’s work being besieged by a Frankenstein-style mob descending upon his home. They bring the house down upon him as Anne flees to safety. “They say my father’s spirit still lives in that house”, she intones mournfully. No-one will be in a hurry to harness any messages from him under the rubble of this movie. Boris Karloff was able to nonchalantly dust himself down and go back to the theatre where 1941 also gave him the new Broadway play that would become a smash-hit for him: the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
Thursday, 19 January 2017
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) brought back Jon Hall as an altogether heavier and more morally-challenged member of the Griffin family in a restoration of the series’ horror plotting and imagery. This time Curt Siodmak’s influence would no longer be felt on the writing, giving way to a journeyman script by Bertram Millhauser who wrote for Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes film adventures. Producer and director this time was Ford Beebe who at least had experience of keeping a B-movie going at pace from helming serials such as Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1939).
As it unfolds, there are many satisfying callbacks to the first films in this sequel, beginning with its relocation back to England. Hall’s Bob Griffin has no stated relationship with his predecessors but has enough troubles in his back story to fit the family tree. After stowing away aboard a ship docking in London, a tailor he buys new clothes from finds a newspaper cutting revealing he escaped from a South African mental hospital, killing three employees. This is only showing us the tip of the iceberg.
Bob heads to the lordly manor house of a prosperous couple who were his old business partners in a diamond mine: Sir Jasper (Lester Matthews) and Lady Irene Herrick, another memorable part of hidden furtive depths for Gale Sondergaard after The Cat and the Canary (1939). It emerges that Bob is entitled to a half-share of the fortune they all made from the mine. He was never able to collect his reward owing to a mysterious blow to the head in the jungle that caused the next five years to be a blank before he found himself institutionalised and broke out of the asylum. Hall deftly switches from sympathetic lead to heavy villainy as he begins to suspect they have deliberately cheated him:
“You’ll ruin us!”
While Sir Jasper mouths regretful platitudes about stock losses rendering them cash-poor, Sondergaard assures Bob that “You’ll get all that’s coming to you”. We can never quite pin down the actress’s evasive skill in seeming to demonstrate altruism whilst suggesting she’s thinking something entirely different – a quality of value to her as a horror genre player. “You see how one drink has affected his warped mind”, she wonders to her husband as Bob keels over – leading us to ask what assistance Lady Irene may have given to his symptoms. The news for Bob gets worse as the agreement he has carried all these years is stolen by the Herricks and his groggy body is kicked out of the house.
Another welcome revisiting of the establishing Invisible Man movies is in the reintroduction here of flavoursome cockney supporting actor performances led by Leon Errol as Bob’s Good Samaritan in a flat cap Herbert Higgins. Errol was well known for his comedy shorts at Columbia and RKO and comedy work opposite Lupe Velez in the latter studio’s Mexican Spitfire film series. He provides light relief and energetic bluster as an inveterate chiseller always looking for an angle. The legal brief he comes up with to attempt blackmail of the Herricks falls flat, leaving his survival instincts to blather his way out of any association as Bob flees.
This connects us with the other notable character in the piece, that favourite horror staple – the mad scientist. We are fortunate that it is allows us to see one of John Carradine’s early outings in the genre (before his Count Dracula in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula in 1945). Carradine had begun in the industry working for Cecil B. DeMille as a set designer and then voice actor across a number of the widescreen maestro’s epic projects before becoming a mainstay of John Ford’s regular company in films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) that suited his cadaverous gravity. His Dr Drury is part of the alumni of misunderstood insane geniuses whose inventions would be feared if ever revealed. Upon registering the shabby, wild Bob at his door he remarks: “You are a fugitive?” with the starry eyes of enlightened self-interest.
Bob willingly volunteers to become Drury’s first human test subject after seeing the effects of his pioneering invisibility serum on the doctor’s menagerie of unseen dogs and a parrot – imperceptibly wired by returning special effects supremo John P. Fulton and his team. “I have outstripped the immortals of science. Now I am immortal!” Drury crows, just in case you doubted his medical madman credentials. Our anti-hero’s steely edge once more overcomes his decency though when the operation is a success. Stay around to become a lecture circuit freak for the doctor’s fame? No sir, he storms out on a re-tooled vengeance mission without so much as a thank you, blithely disregarding the price he will pay for his new super-power of never being rendered visible again.
In threatening the Herricks again now with the benefit of being unseen, Hall echoes the alternating extremes of vocal teasing and menace that the more refined voices of Claude Rains and Vincent Price displayed so well. Whilst he doesn’t have their gifts, he undeniably possesses a more masculine threat level when roused than his predecessors. You wouldn’t want to mess with him even if you could see him. Invisible, he’s a waking nightmare of barely-contained wrath for a pair of nouveau-riche swindlers, albeit with some sketchy ideas on retribution. No court is going to accept the scared Sir Jasper’s written confession of guilt at floating knife-point.
Later we are treated to a whole gallery of spirited, salt of the earth working-class folk in an amusing pub scene where Bob and Herbert aim to con the locals out of five quid in a darts match with the aid of a little supernatural arrow assistance. The dart throws become increasingly outrageous, circling Herbert’s head before hitting the bull and even appearing to be concertina-propelled to the awestruck regulars.
The light-heartedness soon palls when Bob spies Dr Drury restoring the visibility of one of his dogs via a blood transfusion. He knocks out Drury and fatally uses him as the means to duplicate the effect. From here, he bullies his way into the Herrick household, masquerading as Martin Field to escape the authorities so he can glower at their daughter Julie, once his fiancé and now about to marry newshound Mark Foster (Alan Curtis). Once again, Hall displays a potent and ugly command over the family now under his thumb. However, as his ogrish tyranny strengthens, suddenly his appearance starts to fade, his greying, moustached face resembling a ghostly Douglas Fairbanks. This is one of two bids by the writer to give the audience more physical detail of Bob than the mostly off-screen voicing of the previous actors (the second being the submerging of his hand and face in a fish-tank to good and novel effect).
If the director thought this facial recognition would earn Bob more sympathy from the viewer, he is mistaken. For our protagonist, other people are no more than firewood for his furnace. He thinks nothing of knocking Mark out to serve as another transfusion victim before Leyland Hodgson’s Chief Constable Travers can save him in the nick of time. Bob is killed by Drury’s dog and we are left with some slightly dubious sermonising that condemns him simply as a crazed criminal without motive: “Nature has a strange way of paying him back…in his own coin”. While the plot machinations in The Invisible Man’s Revenge fail to generate the same compassion for Bob’s situation as Rains or Price in the central role (their homicidal swathes were underpinned by vestiges of pain and humanity), the paying back of the Herricks for their ill-gotten gains escapes any censure at all.
The unjust ‘crime does pay’ denouement aside, there were two more (dis)appearances by the character – in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) featuring Vincent Price’s distinctive voice reprising the role, and then in 1951’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man with the part taken by Arthur Franz.
Tuesday, 17 January 2017
As part of Universal’s resurgence as the House of Horror in the 1940s, the studio not only resurrected its icons of fear and put them to work again, it also experimented with their formulas. This was ultimately to their detriment, watering down the original chills to a thin gruel of gruesomeness with unintentional and intentional laughs (respectively the King of the Ring multi-monster features like House of Dracula and the diminishing returns of the later Abbott and Costello Meet comedy franchise). One series that departed from and then returned to its roots was The Invisible Man. After the first two films, the titular one in 1933 and the sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the next two iterations changed direction into other genres, The Invisible Woman coming out in December of that year.
I shan’t dwell greatly on these non-genre entries yet they’re worth noting as part of the franchise’s evolution. The Invisible Woman dispensed with all elements of darkness, instead being a science-fiction comedy and very much reminiscent of Disney’s mad boffin family fantasies. This could so easily go wrong in subverting expectations but it works well partly due to the expert guidance of director A. Edward Sutherland whose comic chops were well established working with screen comedians such as W.C. Fields (many times), Mae West in Every Day’s A Holiday (1937) and Laurel and Hardy in 1939’s The Flying Deuces. He gets colourful and confident performances from his leads - Virginia Bruce as beleaguered department store model Kitty Carroll is adept at both sexy glamour and down-to-earth savvy as she volunteers to turn invisible for cash and to get back at her ruthless old boss. There’s witty romance on hand too in her developing banter with Dick Russell (John Howard, whose pleasantly-relaxed charm served him that same month’s release of the classic The Philadelphia Story).
To offset the cuteness, there’s eccentric screwball comedy, slapstick and weird science. Russell’s gloriously sarcastic butler is beloved screen comedian Charlie Ruggles who gets most of the best lines deferring to no-one and observing the growing insanity in his household with withering sarcasm:
“Did you shoot that moose?”
“No, I think it was born there”.
As if having Margaret Hamilton as the severe housekeeper isn’t enough - who can forget The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West? - we get John Barrymore hamming it up with fruity relish as Professor Gibbs. By 1940 Barrymore had sacrificed his early theatrical prestige on the altar of booze, resorting to self-parody cash-ins to fund his still lavish lifestyle (I highly recommend reading Hollywood’s Hellfire Club and Goodnight Sweet Prince for the very low-down) and yet even in decline he is marvellously afire. He alternates between grandfatherly dottiness and stern virtual misogyny as he dematerialises Bruce with his invisibility machine into a farcical and fun plot plunging them into competition with Oscar Homolka’s bungling criminal gang. (What chance could it have with the Three Stooges’ Shemp Howard as a member?). With pratfalls galore and some great one-liners, The Invisible Woman is a very entertaining alternate reality for the formula, though thankfully not continuing the absurdities of the ending whereby Bruce’s baby has inherited her invisibility properties.
The third sequel, Invisible Agent (1942) equally rejects both horror and also comic elements in favour of splicing science fiction with a straight-arrow pandering to topical WWII-themed B-movies. Here, Jon Hall is Frank Raymond, a fake identity concealing him as the grandson of Dr Jack Griffin from the original film. We learn he has the invisibility formula when Axis agents come calling, led by Conrad Stauffer (the venerable British actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and Peter Lorre, his slightly Asiatic looks cunningly cast as Japanese Baron Ikito. They attempt to coerce Griffin into giving up his secret for money. Instead of agreeing, the lantern-jawed patriot tells the U.S. government he will only allow the serum to be used upon himself, thus setting the scene for anti-Nazi derring-do behind enemy lines.
Jon Hall is the only actor ever to have made two Invisible Man sequels as very different characters and acquits himself well in this first. (Stay tuned, we will cover The Invisible Man’s Revenge in the next instalment). Agent allows him to play the clear hero with credible guts and gusto, paired nicely with Ilona Massey as German double agent Maria Sorenson before she played Baron Frankenstein in another Universal franchise extension - Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).
The invisibility angle makes sense for its weaponised capabilities in the wrong hands – no more far-fetched than any other technology-centred guys-on-a-mission war movie such as the ‘heavy water’ component in 1965’s The Heroes of Telemark . As a spy espionage film, Invisible Agent proves once again that the unseen need not be unsupportable when capably directed with pace, by Edwin L. Marin and a return to full scripting by series creator Curt Siodmak who had only provided the story to The Invisible Woman.
Next, we will see how the franchise returned to a welcome horror tone with Jon Hall coming back to seek The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)...
Monday, 16 January 2017
In January 1941, Columbia Pictures released The Face Behind the Mask, a horror-edged crime drama directed by Robert Florey who had overcome any resentment incurred over being replaced as expected director of the 1931 Frankenstein (see my review of 14/2/2016) to become one of the top B-movie directors in the business.
Allen Vincent and Paul Jarrico’s screenplay is a fairly predictable tale of goodness turning to crime by desperate circumstances, but is elevated by the qualities of its lead Peter Lorre. The story gives ample opportunity for him to display his range encompassing the extremes of low and high status with sinister self-possession. He plays Janos Szabo, a wide-eyed and eager-to-please Hungarian immigrant fresh off the boat in New York city. His naivete is fortunately protected from exploitation by a happenstance befriending by decent police Lieut. O’Hara (future Three Stooges support Don Beddoe) who suggests a suitably cheap hotel where he can lodge. One night he is the terrible victim of a fire there resulting in third-degree burns that cause all future employers to turn down his scarred appearance. Thus, his open-hearted innocence is crushed; his dreams of a good life virtuously earned are gradually resculpted into a hardened life of crime due to the more negative chance influence of a petty criminal Dinky (a sympathetic turn by George E. Stone).
Janos’s mechanical skills serve him so well as a jewel thief that he soon becomes the boss of his own high-rolling heist gang, using his share of proceeds to pay for a plastic surgeon’s rubber mask of his former face. This allows effective and subtle makeup that gives Lorre’s visage a sleek, slightly waxen look through which he channels his trademark inscrutability now that he has committed to the bitter consequences of the dark side. His little empire must be preserved –there is no room for the sensitivity of his former self.
Just as we think his humanity has all but died when the surgeon tells him his nerve damage will never allow for full facial restoration, Janos meets Helen, a kindly and blind young woman (Before I Hang’s Evelyn Keyes). Her disability means there is someone out there who is not prejudiced by his looks. Poignantly, she has the warm generosity that reminds him of what he was once like. Such is the profound effect of her that Janos tells his crew that he is quitting the life of crime to settle down with her. However, as Michael Corleone finds out in Godfather III, just when you think you’ve got out…
Initially, Janos and Helen move into their idyll of the dream home with a porch and pooch before sadly the third act takes things to the highest flinty level of emotional stakes from which there is no turning back. Here the plot chugs along with energy if not originality. When Janos’s sadistic old associate Jeff Jeffries (James Seay) cannot torture Janos’s location out of Dinky, his old friend is shot and tossed out of the gang’s moving car, yet manages to warn him of Jeffries’ wrath. Tragically, this comes too late; Helen is blown up by their booby-trapped car (come to think of it, the exact same horrific turning point leading to the ruinous calfication of Michael Corleone).
Janos takes revenge in the most protracted way by disguising himself as the gang’s airline pilot and then stranding them all together in the Arizona desert. His declaration of intent, that they will now all die together, is a standout performed speech by Lorre. He delivers their doom with real measured feeling culminating in strikingly deep notes of finality usually unheard by audiences used to the actor’s higher-pitched, nasal, and obsequious characters:
“Foolishly in vain you will hope. Hope that somehow you will be saved. And slowly you will surely die”.
This bravura highlight in an otherwise unremarkable movie is then capped by O’Hara’s arrival, tipped-off by Janos, revealing a note that thanks him for his kindness and confirms a last vestige of finer feeling from this lost soul.
All told, The Face Behind the Mask is worth seeing for fans of one of the great horror actors of sly, delicate nuance.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
After Bela Lugosi’s triumphant, heartfelt turn as Ygor in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), it seemed that his fortunes, like those of the horror industry, were on the upswing again after the mid-to-late 30s doldrums. He was suddenly hot again, seemingly in demand at a wide spread of studios: for Fox in The Gorilla, Metro (as Commissioner Razinin in Garbo’s Ninotchka) and producer John Argyle wanted him again over in England. There was talk of priming him for lead roles in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (taken superbly by Charles Laughton) as well as The Invisible Man Returns. When the initial rising tide of activity went out though, the rumours and hearsay had dissolved into a shoreline of dregs left behind for him to comb through.
Lugosi began his steady decline with no choice but to accept contracts with the lowest rung studios of Poverty Row. Before his infamous ‘Monogram Nine’, he took the lead in 1940’s The Devil Bat. Directed by genre stalwart Jean Yarborough and scripted by John Thomas Neville, this was filmed by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) who were so tacky that even Monogram and Republic looked down on them during their productive cycle between 1939-1947. Unlike the other two, in PRC’s defence they aimed to at least satisfy a public demand for more lurid horror, making the most of using Lugosi then another not-too-proud horror star George Zucco in The Mad Monster (1942), Dead Men Walk (1943) and Fog Island (1945).
Bela Lugosi may have only worked once for PRC, yet The Devil Bat lingers in the memory like a dead rodent in the bread-bin. He plays Heathville’s kindly village doctor Dr Paul Carruthers, which for once either disproves what I’d said in my review of The Man with Nine Lives about M.Ds never being given Wasp-ish names – or the part had been intended for a more white-bread, still inexpensive, actor. Behind his warm public persona, Carruthers is secretly conducting ‘certain private experiments – weird terrifying experiments’. We know this because the unsubtle prologue rams this home on screen to save us any deliberation. We are then introduced to Carruthers in his secret laboratory where he has strung a stuffed bat upside down and wired it to instrumentation. “Our theory of glandular stimulation through electrical impulses was correct”, he drools. His leather-winged silent partner says nothing, mainly because its cute little close-ups are inserted shots of stock footage. After some repetitive shots of his begoggled visage blasting the innocent bat with electricity, Carruthers accepts its tentatively opening wings as proof that now he has a lethal weapon fit for purpose. “You will strike…to KILL!” he urges.
The Devil Bat is not simply the tale of a mad scientist killing without purpose. Oh no, this is a searing revenge story of a man who murders over something of enormous significance. The besmirched reputation of a monomaniac? No. The cuckoldry of a jealous or grieving husband? Wrong again. This is vengeance over that classic horror movie plot device: greaseless cold cream for the ladies. The doctor is an employee of Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer), a cosmetics empire baron who gypped him into taking ten grand for his make-up marvel instead of shares in the resulting fortune coined in by Heath and Henry Morton (King of the Zombies’ Guy Usher – see review 5/12/2016). The set-up sabotages Lugosi from the start since it is hard for such a passionate performer to wax his bravura operatic arias inspired by moisturiser. The Hungarian horror maestro at times appears understandably listless at the waste, mildly pained with indigestion rather than animated zeal.
Carruthers’ simmering ire at one point tries to seep out in a seething inner monologue - “They are rich and happy and what have you got, Doctor?” – the effect of which would be powerful if it didn’t sound as though he was running lines through a toilet door off-set. He uses the ultimate passive-aggressive solution of murdering Heath’s offspring one by one beginning with Roy (John Ellis) through a cunning after-shave concoction which attracts the bat to fatally attack whomever wears it. Lugosi’s usual artful spin on a line of loaded menace eludes him here when he throws away the double-meaning of “I don’t think you’ll use anything else” when next-victim-in-line sibling Tommy dabs himself with the liquid. One brief spark of engagement is his contemptuous reaction to a mammal expert on the radio: “Imbecile! Bombastic ignoramus”.
While the Max Factor is in full effect, the dreary daftness is injected with some energy care of smooth-talking reporter Johnny Layton (a pleasingly-relaxed Dave O’Brien, who would team up again with Lugosi while wrangling the East Side Kids in 1941’s Spooks Run Wild - see review). He has a comic relief idiot sidekick, photographer ‘One-shot’ McGuire, played by Donald Kerr who would go on to channel more buffoonery for Yarborough in Abbott and Costello’s horror features. They become embroiled within the murder mystery, going so far as to even fake their own bat (as opposed to the real fake one) to stay on the story. Meanwhile Dr Carruthers maintains his trustworthy demeanour in front of the dwindling family, who after Don and Tommy almost their beautiful daughter Mary (occasional Three Stooges support Suzanne Kaaren) to a bedroom bat visit.
And so begins a stupifying game of matched half-wits between the newspapermen and their scientist suspect. The only horrifying element of The Devil Bat is the laughable obtuseness of the Heaths and more alarmingly their journalist helpers in not connecting the overwhelming evidence indicting Carruthers. The after-shave has been established as the deadly homing beacon drawing the bat to its victims. Carruthers brazenly admits to Layton that he created it. He also has the only obvious motive for killing members of the same family, a grudge that everyone in town knows about. Moreover, who else could have the cologne of death since his laboratory is in a secret location preventing anyone else from stealing it?
Finally, Carruthers the bat-man is all in a flap when Layton applies the lotion to himself and dares the doctor to stand vigil with him to await a winged mouse attack, splashing him for good measure. There are no prizes for guessing who succumbs and the verdict “It’s too late to help the doc” is sadly true in more ways than one.
For a horror film centred on fatal smells, The Devil Bat makes no scents. Still, PRC thought it had enough fragrance to recycle it twice as The Mad Monster in 1942 and The Flying Serpent (1946) followed by a direct sequel, The Devil Bat’s Daughter, the same year.
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
A year after his busted 1939 Bela Lugosi vehicle The Dark Eyes of London (aka The Human Monster), British producer John Argyle adapted another Edgar Wallace crime novel The Door with Seven Locks for the cinema with better results. It kept its title for British audiences and was released in America by Monogram as Chamber of Horrors, benefitting from being a more straight-forward murder-mystery (with slightly grisly undertones) than its predecessor and featuring an improved screenplay and lead performances.
The film plot concerns the instructions given by the dying English Lord Selford (Aubrey Mallalieu) that he be entombed within the family vault along with his jewels behind a door with seven locks. The battle for possession of the keys to these locks will become the focus of a cat-and-mouse game between good guys and bad.
Where Chamber of Horrors scores is in the dialogue and characterisation of its heroes assisted by Argyle and Gilbert Gunn’s lively script. The estate’s Canadian heiress June Lansdowne is nicely played by German-born actress Lili Palmer, who went on to become Rex Harrison’s second wife and win Golden Globes for But Not for Me (1959) and Peter the Great (1986). Though June was packed off to Quebec as a child, she likes a spot of adventure and dives into the unfolding mystery, as does her streetwise spunky Ontario friend Glenda (former musical star Gina Malo). They are embroiled in a web of deception when June is given one of the vital keys in a nursing home deathbed confession by Luis Silva (J.H. Roberts), but he is shot by a covert assassin before he can reveal the other keys’ locations. The plot thickens when she runs for help from the Matron who insists the home currently has no patients.
Together the energetic and capable ladies are more than a match for the men of London’s C.I.D who investigate the ensuing case. The senior man is Richard Bird’s Inspector Seed, a cynic who spouts pricelessly sexist maxims: “Women are like tiger-cats. They ought to be caged at sixteen and shot at twenty”. We meet him engaged in mocking office trash-talk with his underling Dick Martin who’s just resigned from the force (actor Romilly Lunge whose fitting action adverb name also sounds like a Goon Show creation). Ironically, the film was to be Lunge’s last in real life despite living to the ripe old age of ninety. Lunge plays Dick with a breezy, winning confidence like a two-fisted Kenneth More; a pipe-man who’s also handy with his fists. Among director Norman Lee’s previous credits was 1937’s Bulldog Drummond at Bay and there’s a pleasing echo of the gentleman adventurer in this film’s hero.
When June and Glenda go to the cops, there are immediate sparks between her and Dick, an incentive prompting him to offer himself as a simple advisor for the intriguing sleuthy fun of it. “Everybody seems to be helping me” June delights, fully aware of her effect on him. It won’t be a picnic though. In total, Dick gets into four fist-fights over the next two acts, the first of which is an attack by two of the deceased Lord’s conniving staff in the girl’s hotel.
The tight foursome go to the Selford estate where the family’s solicitor and trustee Havelock (David Horne) explains to them his shock that the seven keys could be at large when they were zealously guarded. Hovering over the proceedings is family physician Dr Manetta (Leslie Banks, in his only return to horror after his villainy in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - see my review dated 30/3/2016). Banks oozes suavity and concealed depths behind his goatee beard; this coupled with being a Spaniard no doubt earned war-time audience’s knee-jerk distrust as a Johnny Foreigner. He doesn’t exactly assuage xenophobic prejudice with his choice of hobby either since he has a fetish for historical torture devices, in particular Torquemada’s Spanish Inquisition. After trying out his spiky Iron Maiden, Dick is not impressed: “I think I’ll stick to cigarette cards”.
Our intrepid quartet along with Havelock open the tomb and are shot at for their snooping. The evil staff have so far all but one key needed to unlock the vault and its half a million in treasure. By accident, June uncovers the remaining key when Manetta’s chimp Beppo knocks over a vase containing it. She is then kidnapped and held captive by stern housekeeper Mrs Cody (Cathleen Nesbitt) – “You’ve been unfortunate. Again” - her husband, and Robert Montgomery’s mute butler. They are all in the thrall of master criminal Dr Manatee who flaunts his power until Dick gives him a spin under the Iron Maiden’s looming spikes himself. The doctor’s smug composure cracks, he screams like a girl and owns up to the big plan involving a substitute posing as the Lord’s real heir to gradually siphon off the inheritance without June knowing. When June berates Dick for unlawful cruelty, he shows a satisfying hard edge under the clean-cut heroics, averring that he’s a private citizen not a responsible policeman held to a professional code. She isn’t the only one with powers of persuasion and soon he is away with her.
Chamber of Horrors is well-paced and with its sprinkling of sassy one-liners delivered by a game cast makes a decent wet Sunday afternoon’s entertainment.
Monday, 9 January 2017
Although Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were partnered together in a number of films, their careers and opportunities ran at different levels. Since Frankenstein, Karloff had gradually managed to negotiate better pay and projects than his Hungarian colleague. Lugosi meanwhile continually struggled and had to take what parts he could get, earning substantially less than Karloff even when they were billed together. In Poverty Row Horrors! Tom Weaver put it bluntly: ‘The studios simply tossed Lugosi aside liked a sucked orange’. Whereas he was forced to work in an ever-decreasing spiral of quality, Karloff had the good fortune to limit his involvement with the Poverty Row studios. He did however make one horror film for the infamous Monogram as opposed to Lugosi’s total of nine notorious tours of duty beloved by bad movie fans.
Karloff had previously top-lined five of Monogram’s Mr Wong mystery series directed by William Nigh between 1938-1940 and The Ape was to be the closing commitment to his contract, again helmed by Nigh. It certainly bears all the hallmarks of being a ‘contractual obligation album’ for the English actor despite according it his customary professionalism. It was scripted by Kurt Siodmak who would have to wait another year to produce a screenplay that would make his name: 1941’s The Wolf Man. Whilst dabbling with Invisible Man sequels, he and Richard Carroll adapted Adam Hull Shirk’s play wherein an Englishman is cursed by a Hindu priest in India for killing a sacred gorilla and thirty years later has vengeance carried out on him in America. Monogram had already filmed the story as The House of Mystery in 1934, but for this version the writers junked everything except an ape disguise adopted by the protagonist.
Karloff is required to channel another in his long line of mistrusted medical pioneers, and in fact with prosaic greying hair, moustache and glasses looks very similar to the role he’d just played in Before I Hang (1940). His Dr Bernard Adrian is the M.D. of a redneck American community who seems the epitome of a kindly Little House on the Prairie country doctor. The locals are suspicious of him though over his rumoured use of selected folk as experimental guinea-pigs during a paralysis epidemic, a vague notion that the poor script never reconciles. He is very fond of the young Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon, one of the better members of a lacklustre supporting cast). She is wheelchair-bound from Polio and for him represents another chance to do good after a same-aged girl and her mother both died under his attempted treatment.
When the travelling circus comes to town, Frances and her grease-monkey boyfriend (Gene o’Donnell) attend and enjoy a ringside seat at what is clearly an evening of stock footage under the big-top. (Monogram had indicated they would spend a pretty penny on this film – there definitely isn’t much evidence of many dollars). Later that night, all hell in the form of another monkey breaks loose after a fire, the ape a better-than usual man-in-a-suit portrayal of convincing mass and movement. The trainer is killed by the gorilla before it escapes, and is brought to Adrian where Adrian suddenly realises here is a way to gain a plentiful supply of the spinal fluid he needs for further experimentation. When asked for reassurance by the trainer, he gives none:
“Am I gonna die?”
“We all have to die some time”.
At least his kindly bedside manner is saved for young Frances. Here at least is an occasional opportunity for Karloff to enliven the humdrum plot, giving authority and fervour to scenes where he wills her to walk with tentative, marginal results. In the meantime, Henry Hall’s Sheriff Halliday moseys along trying to make sense of it all, tracking the elusive ape with blood-hounds. He would seek further Monogram monkey-shines with Bela Lugosi in The Ape Man (1943) and then Voodoo Man (1944). The gorilla finds his way to Dr Adrian as does everyone it seems regardless of their prejudice toward him. During an ensuing fight with him a vial of precious serum breaks before Adrian stabs him to death. Now what will Adrian do? A second fortuitous idea occurs to him.
More murders are committed with the victims showing signs of spinal puncture marks. One of which, the selfish bullying money-lender Mason (Philo McCullough) at least deserves it. Could these be the handiwork of the M.D. or the missing ape at large? In its sole borrowing from the original stage play, the culprits are one and the same. As a dying, unmasked Adrian expires on the porch, his last redeeming act is to induce Frances to fully walk for the first time. “There. You see?” he gasps as death relieves the film’s star of any more Poverty Row filming.
The Ape is a slapdash effort and yet more evidence of Hollywood Horror’s inability to let go of that pesky gorilla obsession. Karloff’s character is never given the means via the leaden dialogue and plot to earn our sympathy, except for a single moment where Selmer Jackson retracts his former expulsion of Adrian from his foundation twenty-five years ago for his spinal fluid tinkerings. Karloff sags against the door slightly in a human moment of vulnerability and poignancy – but “Too late…” It does not stop him from an absurd killing spree in hardly the most discrete disguise.
Friday, 6 January 2017
Boris Karloff’s follow-up to The Man with Nine Lives (1940) was another in his gallery of mad scientists, completing a trio with director Nick Grinde for Columbia Pictures here from a script by radio dramatist Robert Hardy Andrews. It’s a cut above the usual fare with a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere of Noirish doom that thankfully had its original misleading title changed from the tacky The Wizard of Death.
Karloff is Dr John Garth, a scientist about to be sentenced to death but media-labelled as the ‘Mercy Killer’ for his abortive attempt to prolong the life of a patient. Compounding the back-story for sympathy, he delivers his last statement to the judge with a sincere gravitas, explaining his altruistic motives for trying to end the man’s suffering with which “old age had poisoned his body”. Indeed, made up with white hair and moustache his character is every inch a kindly, compassionate grandfather figure.
The judge is forced to rule that Garth be hanged within the next month, yet with three weeks to go he is offered the chance to continue his work by the Warden (Ben Taggart), who is fascinated by his idea of a serum extracted from life cells in a quest for possible immortality. “A race for life against death,” Garth observes lugubriously, but jumps at the chance to do as much as he can. His plaintive daughter Martha (Evelyn Keyes) and his assistant, her fiancé Dr Ames, campaign for his freedom, (a minimal role for the athletic Bruce Bennett who distinguished himself more as a silver medallist shot-putter in the 1928 Olympic Games).
Garth instead employs an interested colleague to assist him in his research, Dr Ralph Howard - a return to scholarly roles for Edward Van Sloan famous as Van Helsing in the first two Dracula films, with Karloff in Frankenstein as well as The Mummy amongst others. He is almost unrecognisable without his familiar glasses and adds academic dignity to the medical fun and games alongside Karloff. The fatal variable in the ensuing lab work comes courtesy of Garth’s decision to use the blood of an executed three-time killer for his next batch of serum. The other twist is that after persuading Howard to inject him as a guinea-pig, his sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Suddenly he is the unexpected beneficiary of extended life anyway notwithstanding a blood-stream swimming with pioneering fluid.
Dr Howard is the first to notice the side-effects apparent in his colleague: a gradual reversing of the aging process. Garth’s hair is returning subtly to grey and his eyesight has regained strength. The bad news is that he is also in possession of an unwelcome bonus tendency toward homicidal impulses. While this is the only aspect of the film that jumps the credibility gap in an otherwise sterling bid for tonal realism. It’s also where the macabre fun is to be had. Over the course of the remaining plot, whenever his work is threatened Garth unwittingly glazes over as the murderer within takes over. Karloff perspires at the brow, coils a silk handkerchief into an elegant strangler’s weapon and gravely throttles his victim with a gritty grim understatement, beginning with the unfortunate Dr Howard. His use of shiny black rubber gloves is a memorable touch of sadistic kink.
It is not only Before I Hang’s unseen killer who casts a perceptible shadow over the film. Cinematographer Benjamin Kline who had previously worked with Grinde and Karloff shooting The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) and The Man With Nine Lives (1940) aids the Film Noir mood greatly. His gloomy lighting creates a tangible brooding dread especially as Garth begins his uncontrollable descent into serial dispatching.
There’s a nice irony in the judge decreeing that without evidence implicating him in Howard’s murder, Garth is soon pardoned with the declaration: “We hope and pray that your life will be long and fruitful”. If he only knew the toxic brew coursing through the former prisoner, he may have reconsidered.
Like a walking virus, Garth is commanded from within to spread his infection with no time to waste. He bluntly tries to convince his gracefully aging friends to volunteer for inoculation. Aside from a mature acceptance of their allotted “three score and ten”, one look at his twitchy forcefulness tells them that this is not a Fountain of Youth they fancy drinking from. A one-on-one appeal though to esteemed pianist pal Victor Sondini (Pedro de Cordoba) does the trick, but before Garth can inject him his Mr Hyde persona curtails Sondini’s ivory-tinkling for ever.
Ultimately the once-good doctor has to be stopped yet it won’t be a wooden turn from Don Beddoe’s Capt. Magraw that does it. Garth himself must turn himself in. He attempts to do so in a conditional fireside confession to his friend George Wharton (Wright Kramer), scuppered however by the handkerchief handiwork of his alter-ego. Enough of Garth’s humanity is accessible for him to finally turn himself in to the safekeeping of his prison. The staging of this climax is handled effectively as he marches with purpose through the fog to the gates and an inevitable Hollywood price to be paid…
Overall, Before I Hang is a solid and surprisingly meaty horror-thriller across such a slight running time of sixty minutes.
Thursday, 5 January 2017
July 1940 saw the release of a rare horror film that was the first to feature an all-black cast of actors. The bad news is that the result, Son of Ingagi, is abysmal, on a level with the very worst of the later 1970s Blaxploitation efforts. The title refers to a now-obscure curio, Ingagi, a discredited 1930 faux-documentary. Arguably the first in the found-footage genre, it was essentially a fake filmed record of a Congo expedition uncovering a remote tribe’s rituals that included bestiality with gorillas. It was later exposed as really being made in Los Angeles after a viewer reportedly recognized an actor playing one of the tribesmen and stunt-man Charles Gemora came clean with a signed affidavit confessing to having portrayed the lead gorilla.
The resulting court case disputing the provenance of Ingagi didn’t stop Hollywood Pictures Corporation putting Son of Ingagi into production (distributed by a company called Sack – supply your own puns). There is no connection however except a tenuous link with equally unconvincing man-in-a-monkey-suit shenanigans. Despite its affirmative action for African-American talent, the only ground-breaking for this film is in the soil for its own hasty burial.
The director Richard C. Kahn was already noted for making entirely black-cast movies such as Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938) and The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) yet this misfire looks unavoidably like the work of amateurs.
The pedestrian plot of this flimsy vehicle concerns newlyweds Eleanor and Bob Lindsay, a classy Alfred Grant partnered with a dire Daisy Bufford (whose previous credits are almost entirely ‘uncredited’ including 1939’s Gone with the Wind – draw your own conclusions). They decide to spend their honeymoon in their new home but their friends gate-crash in order to hold a surprise party. Meanwhile, there is the formidable Dr Helen Jackson at hand (Laura Bowman), a passably irascible former African missionary who firstly hires Spencer Williams’ overweight bumbler Detective Nelson to change her will and then drops the bombshell on Eleanor that her birth folks were killed by a tornado, she was in love with her father and could almost have been this winsome bride’s mother. This isn’t the only secret she’s been harbouring: Jackson also has an ex-jailbird brother Zeno (Arthur Ray) who knows she came back with $20,000 in gold and he wants half. What he doesn’t know is that she also brought back something even more startling – N’Gina (Zack Williams) - a mute ape-man with a face coated in yak hair leaving a mask of human features around the eyes and nose to resemble an overgrown chimp.
Jackson’s simulated simian is at least house-trained enough to be signalled into action by her use of a gong-striker when Zeno attempts to blackmail her. A revolving painting and a sliding wall reveals this pitiable shambler who lumbers over to frighten Zeno into fleeing. ‘Terror reigns when the giant of the jungles breaks loose!’ shrieks the poster hysterically, but even after N’Gina drinks Jackson’s mystery potion he’s too slow to terrify. He’s also a dead loss in the later shoddy bid for comic relief when portly Nelson makes a late-night sandwich twice in the couples’ kitchen, each time having it stolen by N’Gina behind his back.
The performances are not helped by a leaden script of wincing clunkiness written by the aforementioned Spencer Williams. Jesse Graves’ Chief of Detectives walks in on N’Gina and tries his hand at tough-guy talk in between pistol shots: “I see ya don’t like the taste of lead, do you Jungle Man?” he swaggers, before dissolving into high-pitched girly screams as N’Gina descends on him like a thrift-store carpet. On seeing his boss’s dead body, Nelson goes for either laughs or PTSD-inspired confusion by shouting “Help! Police! Murder!” Wasn’t that supposed to be him?
After roughly sixty minutes of tiresome stage-bound scenes that resemble a bad TV play, the newlyweds escape from their now-blazing house having imprisoned the not-exactly rampaging N’Gina down below in a makeshift cage. As they watch their dreams of cosy domesticity going up in flames, Bob sums up their situation: "Anything's better than living...in that horrible house".
Further law enfarcement is provided when another senior cop arrives and is told by them that Nelson was trapped in the house too. The cut to an obvious doll’s-house sized model on fire makes this highly unlikely. “A brave man and a brilliant detective,” laments the officer, making me wonder if he has the right address.
Fortunately it turns out that Nelson managed to escape in time - a fate that could not be said for those who sit through this wasted opportunity, well-meaning though its conception may have been for black artists.
Tuesday, 3 January 2017
Boris Karloff went straight from his dangerously single-minded man of science in Black Friday into another similarly driven scientist in The Man with Nine Lives (1940) for Columbia Pictures, re-teaming with Nick Grinde who directed him in 1939’s The Man They Could Not Hang (see my review 25/10/2016) from a script by Harold Shumate. The same real-life story inspired both films as well as Life Returns in 1935 (also fully reviewed by me on 5/7/16), that of Dr Robert Cornish’s successful experiment in reviving the dead – a dog in his case – to feverish criticism by moralists.
Karloff plays Dr Leon Kravaal, perpetuating a fond predilection for foreign names for that extra touch of the gothically sinister – (giving your horror movie M.D. a name like Jim Baxter doesn’t quite work somehow). His part’s reputation and enigma precedes him in this film as we first spectate on another doctor’s pioneering operation using ‘frozen therapy’, a forerunner to cryogenic suspension. Dr Tim Mason (an earnest Roger Pryor, also from the earlier film) is attempting to freeze a cancer patient on the operating table in the hope that, once rejuvenated, she will be clear of tissue damage. The procedure is an amusingly low-tech method consisting of applying two tubes to the patient and a mound of ice-cubes dumped on her chest, followed by pouring hot coffee down a rubber pipe into her by way of revival. No wonder his employers are concerned – this is the work of a graduate from Garden Shed School of Medicine.
Mason’s well-meaning enthusiasm over-states his claims for a cure, resulting in the faucet of funding for his research being abruptly turned off. His nurse fiancé Judith, the beguiling beauty Jo Ann Sayers, commiserates and encourages him to seek out the man whose book was his inspiration. The reclusive Dr Kravaal has been living in the mountains near the Canadian border and hasn’t been seen for years. The couple decide to travel to find him in order to further this incredible technology. A boat-ride deposits them at the dilapidated, cobwebbed house of Kravaal wherein even the laboratory appears unused for a long time.
The dry-rotted floorboards create a hole that reveals a tunnel leading to a virtual ice tomb containing the frozen body of Kravaal and four other men. Mason and Judith set about thawing him out by a fire, and here Karloff convinces well as a man whose mind gradually defrosts into the astounding realisation that he has been encased in suspended animation for an entire decade. Beneath a distinguished dark hair-piece and goatee, his characterisation and point-of-view mapped out by the script is the saving note of interest in an otherwise run-of-the-mill plot.
Predictably, yes we discover that like all scientists in pursuit of great breakthroughs, the eminent doctor is willing to sacrifice a few human lives. However, we are never allowed to regard him as a raving immoral monster. The script never loses sight of continually weighing the apparent cruelty of Kravaal’s actions against the long-term needs not just of society but of the terminal individual he is treating, who crucially has nothing to lose. His back-story positions this argument for both sides in flash-backs depicting him having frozen a wealthy consenting patient, Jasper Adams, and being forced to explain his ongoing secrecy to the man’s nephew Bob, (an awkward Stanley Brown), the district attorney, coroner and police sheriff. They demand he must stop and release the man. He in turn pleads passionately that he must continue in private to avoid a break in the treatment that would be fatal to Adams. This balancing act of Kravaal’s morality prevents us from losing sympathy for him at several points in the film.
It emerges that having no choice but to take the four men to his home, Kravaal entombs them in a chamber to protect his experiments. Upon thawing by the young couple, the third act turns into a reasonably tense siege drama of mistrust and self-preservation amongst the group as they are pitted against the ‘necessary’ cunning of Kravaal. Bob Adams is shot by him after the young man burns his formula. This causes the doctor to hold them all prisoner while he struggles to replicate his research from scratch, arguing with some justification that it is their fault and that he was coerced to bring them here in the first place.
Despite this interesting duel for audience’s sympathies, inevitably Kravaal’s experiments must be iced, scotched on the rocks presumably to avoid the ever-watchful Production Code’s condemnation if the film condoned his crimes. His immortal legacy after death is to be a vanguard in the brave new world of medical science for Dr Mason to follow in his foot-steps - and for Boris Karloff to move on to even more variations on horror cinema's fabled man in the white coat...