Tuesday, 30 May 2017

THE MONSTER MAKER (1944)

When Poverty Roe studio PRC released The Monster Maker in April 1944, it was their first horror movie for almost eighteen months. The result had better production values and serviceable performances than usual, but drags interminably in the second half, failing to utilise two standard horror components that in other hands would have jacked up the pace: a disfigured victim of a mad scientist and a gorilla on the loose.

Director Sam Neufield had already given us the two George Zucco vehicles of The Mad Monster (1942) and 1943’s Dead Men Walk - both reviewed on this site - neither of which were in danger of reaching a quality threshold due to his pursuit of phenomenal credit volume over substance. The screenplay and story was down to Larry Williams, Pierre Gendron, Martin Mooney and Nell O'Day, which always beggars belief as to how so many people are needed for such meagre results.

For the role of the medical megalomaniac Dr Ivan Markoff, PRC were supremely lucky to get J. Carol Naish at a point when his career was on a high. His work on The Monster Maker along with the same year’s Jungle Woman and House of Frankenstein all fell right between two Academy Award-nominated performances of his. As Italian Guiseppe in Bogart war picture Sahara (1943) and Hispanic father Charley in A Medal for Benny (1945) he made versatile use of his indeterminate ethnic appearance, which in reality was of Irish-American origin.

Dr Markoff is very much a typical Bela Lugosi part, being largely made up of Eastern European charm and a hypnotic stare concealing some secret lab experimentation. Naish brings a dark and subtly sinister edge to his obsession with Patricia (low-budget stalwart Wanda McKay), the daughter of Ralph Morgan’s concert pianist Lawrence. At a recital, Markoff believes her to be the exact double of his dead wife: “It is like seeing the dead returned to life” he whispers in awe to his assistant 
Maxine (Tala Birell). Birell was a Romanian who came to Hollywood and was labelled like many as a second Garbo due to her remote, frosty beauty. Here, she uses this to convey a seething jealousy at having her loyalty to Markoff thrown over in favour of his unhealthy desire for this interloper.

Markoff pesters Patricia with flowers and notes until Lawrence is forced to visit him to warn him to stay away. There’s an amusing hint of Markoff’s field of expertise in the reading matter Lawrence glances through while waiting, with an article headed ‘MAN IS WHAT HIS DUCTLESS GLANDS MAKE HIM’, which at least maketh the man a little more interestingly than his clothes. Meanwhile we see Markoff busying himself in his laboratory with test-tubes and that other requisite of any serious scientific cuckoo, a caged gorilla, (another opportunity for man-plus-ape-suit Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan to earn his sideline).

Markoff’s response to laying off stalking Patricia is to show an unimpressed Lawrence an admittedly exact likeness photo of his deceased wife, and then state “But I’m going to marry her” with cold finality. Understandably, protective dad Lawrence grapples with Markoff who cunningly sees a chance for an experimental guinea pig. He injects Lawrence with a strain of the disease acromegaly, the very one of which he is a world expert and for which he has been researching a cure. Acromegaly is a horrific real condition caused by excessive growth hormone produced from a defective pituitary gland, resulting in enlarged hands, feet and parts of the head. (The tragically-afflicted Rondo Hatton parlayed his extreme sufferance of the disease into a brief horror film career that we will cover – The Pearl of Death (1944) and 1946’s House of Horrors and The Brute Man).

To begin with, Lawrence develops the side-effects of oncoming acromegaly, namely an excess of restless energy. His sudden, relentless ivory-tinkling concerns Patricia and her fiancé Bob (Terry Frost) while he becomes increasingly hampered by discomfort in his hands.  It isn’t long before he manifests the full-blown grotesquerie of an enlarged chin, forehead and cheekbones resembling the Elephant Man John Merrick.  Hiding his awful appearance from his family, Lawrence is forced to go to Markoff in secret as he is the only acknowledged authority.

What Lawrence doesn’t know speaks even worse of Markoff’s dastardly deeds. The unspeakable villain had once injected his living wife the same way to prevent her beauty being enjoyed by anyone else. She committed suicide rather than live as a deformed victim. Markoff then stole the identity and life’s work of the real doctor. His mad god complex drives him to manaically relish the possibility of holding humanity to ransom over the cure - “The only living man to have such power”. This barrage of exposition appals Maxine to the point where she vows to betray him, a big mistake as he sends his gorilla to ineffectually attempt to murder her in a poorly-executed action sequence. Her German Shepherd ‘Ace the Wonder Dog’ (a blatant canine rip-off of Rin Tin Tin formerly owned by RKO) runs upstairs to help and the scene simply ends there inconclusively.

Lawrence demeans himself with no choice other than to submit to “the devil’s apprentice” Markoff, who keeps him bed-ridden, cruelly offering the remedy only in return for his daughter’s hand. This relegation to invalid status for Lawrence hamstrings the second half of the film. Having fumbled the potentially homicidal gorilla, we are now left with a talk-fest between villain and captor while Markoff feeds Patricia misleading information about her father’s sanity and condition.

Look out for Markoff’s manservant Steve played by future horror name Glenn Strange. In 1942 Strange had played Petro the werewolf in PRC’s The Mad Monster. The 6 feet 5 inch-tall, 220 lb cowboy actor was being made up for another role by Jack Pierce over at Universal when the make-up supremo noted how useful his build and physiognomy could be as Frankenstein’s Monster. By the end of 1944 he would inhabit the role, beginning an association across three movies including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) that was so strong that his features became those used for the studio’s wave of children’s merchandising in later decades. In this movie, he bides his time mainly opening and answering doors until a scuffle with rescuer Bob has him shot in loyal service.

Patricia and Bob confront the evil Markoff who is then dispatched by Lawrence off-camera. When they discover that Maxine has the knowledge of her boss’s X-54 serum to cure Lawrence, all ends well with the doting threesome watching him restored to frankly miraculous performing glory…

Monday, 29 May 2017

THE MUMMY'S CURSE (1944)

Universal’s unwanted Christmas present to horror fans in December 1944 was a final, anaemic pseudo-serious entry in the Mummy series entitled The Mummy’s Curse. Straining the last drops of Tana essence out of the mythology, it resurrected the terminally under-used Lon Chaney Jr as Kharis, eternal lover of the ancient Princess Ananka with whom he disappeared into the Louisiana swamp twenty-five years before this fourth sequel is set. Under former comedy director Leslie Goodwins, this last entry wraps up the original franchise without any humour and virtually nothing to offer.

Bernard Schubert who previously wrote 1935’s Mark of the Vampire and Jungle Woman (1944) was one of an unbelievable seven writers in total involved with the humdrum screenplay. Here, an engineering firm is draining the swamp for reclamation when the Scripps Museum’s Dr Halsey (Dennis Moore) and the Egyptian Dr Ilzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) ask for the chance to excavate the area for the fabled mummified twosome. There’s no need to look for Zucco’s evil High Priest in this version as the active villain sports the dead giveaway ‘black hat’ of a fez . That dubious honour falls to Dr Zandaab who has already dredged up Kharis and secreted him in an abandoned monastery with the aid of his servant Ragheb (Martin Kosleck). This is just as well since the death of a labourer has filled the other site workers with supernatural fear about continuing work in the swamp. Napoleon Simpson’s Goobie expresses this in stereotyped Afro-American subservience: “The devil’s on the loose and he’s dancing with the Mummy!”

Sho’ nuff, Zandaab awakens Kharis with the ancient Tana leaf brew after a flashback that through the mists of time recaps the three-Millenia old legend of how Kharis was rumbled trying to revive his worshipped Princess love and was treated to a live burial as a reward along with those refreshing leaves. These scenes were a crafty cannibalisation of Karloff material from The Mummy (1932) and footage of 1940’s The Mummy's Hand.

The one worthwhile sequence in this film is the memorable rise from the swamp mud of Ananka played by Virginia Christie – later appearing as Wilma Lentz in the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Although Christie emerges as an actress with the same vacuous dialogue delivery as The Mummy’s Ghost’s Ramsey Ames whom she replaces, the physicality of how she emerges from the mud is strikingly eerie. There are echoes of Fulci’s undead rising from Zombi 2 in the slow deliberation of her movements, sightless and clay-covered, almost a stone statue come to life. She raises her blind eyes to the sun and gradually recovers her vision, greeting the world anew with almost poetic beauty and dignity.

Meanwhile the marauding Kharis is sent by the fezzed facilitator to retrieve Ananka. Despite being prone to dream-state murmurings of his name, she flees at the bandaged sight of him. He kidnaps her even so from sanctuary at the home of Cajun matron Tante Berthe (Ann Codee) who began the film singing a French ditty as though we’d stumbled into a Gallic operetta by mistake.

Relocated to the protection of Dr Halsey, Ananka quickly impresses him with her practical skill at identifying a bandage scrap as belonging to Kharis, albeit without any conscious idea of how she knows this. What becomes more evident to the discerning viewer is the better choice for her role of the spirited Kay Harding who instead is the site boss’s niece Betty Walsh. (Harding was Marie Journet a few months before in Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw). 

The climax takes place in the monastery, a much more elaborate backdrop than the pitiful shed used in The Mummy’s Ghost. This time, the usual betrayal of the Kharis reunion mission comes not from Zandaab but Ragheb, who is understandably bewitched by the better actress. “Master, I am but flesh and blood” he murmurs with ironic lifelessness. Ragheb stabs his employer with a knife and then tries to kill rescuer Halsey but is forced to hide in a cell as Kharis comes after him in furious vengeance mode, his wrath bringing down the holy bricks of the monastery’s wing upon them.



The ending of this drab quickie did not save Lon Chaney from Universal’s remaining monster team-ups of their second wave in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). He would however regain a measure of respect for his admirably straight revisiting of Wolf Man Laurence Talbot in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Friday, 26 May 2017

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944)

July 1944 saw a forlorn, shuffling presence dragging its sad carcase into view. Once belonging to an exotic, terrifying dynasty that terrorised all in its wake, it was now reduced to demeaning servitude, a weak and humiliated force. It was Universal’s horror department. Having profited immensely from a first wave (1931 to 1936) that introduced the celebrated icons of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man to modern audiences, the studio lost courage in its second cycle that began with World War Two. Despite an upsurge in cinema attendances, Universal only added the new blood-line of Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man (1941) into the family. As the Forties rolled on, their flagging inspiration was evident in the demotion of their pure horror movies to B-movie level, meaning that the voltage being pumped into the franchises was only enough to keep the engine ticking over, not to reinvigorate it. All five of the brand-name monsters were endlessly re-presented in increasingly shoddy and ill-considered sequels.

The same could be said of their human resources. Now Universal had brought Chaney’s career to life as a horror actor, they didn’t know what to do with him either. Unlike the post-Millenial ‘franchise viagra’ effect of Dwayne Johnson, his unique position of appearing in four of the iconic series (all bar The Invisible Man) did nothing to expand Chaney’s range or the life of the franchises. Ironically, invisibility was the main problem in the worst of these, The Mummy follow-ons. As we saw with 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb (reviewed here), it could have been anyone staggering along mutely under the rotting bandages. After attaching him to more unappetising franchise leftovers such as Son of Dracula (1943) and the Inner Sanctum potboilers, the studio entombed Chaney in two more deathless Egyptian tombs.

The first of these was The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), which like Chaney’s return as the mummified Kharis is a weak and dull creature hampered by lame limbs – an obviously miniscule budget and slapdash script quality by the returning Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher. Directed by Reginald Le Borg, (resistance e futile?) a further call-back to the previous entries was the return of George Zucco as the almost indestructible High Priest. By now his nine lives seemed to be running out though as this was the last time he would pass on the mantle of servant of Amon-Ra to another fallible, fez-sporting disciple. White-haired and doddery under Jack Pierce’s subtly aging make-up, Zucco gives the poison chalice this time to John Carradine of all people, with whom he’d recently worked on Monogram’s Voodoo Man. Being of naturally pale complexion, Pierce ensures Carradine’s Yousef Bey has a swarthy tan which accentuates his penetrating blue eyes when giving the evil eye later. Bey’s mission is to bring Princess Ananka and her eternal lover Kharis back to Egypt.

Meanwhile in Mapleton (USA), location of The Mummy’s Tomb, Frank Reicher reprises his role of college Professor Norman from that film. His Egyptology students disbelieve Kharis’s previous rampage through the town as the work of an imposter in costume. The most vocal class sceptic is Tom Hervey (a relaxed Robert Lowery), a few years before donning his own disguise as the Caped Crusader in Columbia’s Batman and Robin (1949). Tom’s buddy asks him to inquire about the legend from his girlfriend Amina (Ramsay Ames) who happens to be Egyptian. Although Tom is still dismissive about the events, he is intrigued by Amina’s haunted distraction whenever he mentions her homeland. “Something happens to me when I think of Egypt” she says. This is hard to detect as Ames is a pitifully inexpressive actress. Originally Acquanetta was cast as Amina (Universal’s exotic beauty whom we saw in 1943’s Captive Wild Woman and the upcoming Jungle Woman) but she had to be hurriedly recast when she suffered concussion from a fall on set. As her replacement, Ames acts as though she has concussion herself. Amina is to be a vessel for Ananka’s reincarnated spirit; on the evidence of Ames’s line delivery there is plenty of room as her own soul has already vacated possession.

There’s more tea brewed in this move than on a British building site. Before Bey boils the sacred
Tana leaves to summon Kharis, Professor Norman beats him to it after translating an inscription on a box of leaves. The hapless mummy suddenly appears, lumbering out of a forest with no clue as to his hiding place. (Where has he been all this time?). Amina goes walkabout in a hypnotic trance just as a black cat crosses her path – an artful, understated omen. There’s a foretelling of doom in those tea-leaves as well. Kharis bursts in on the unwitting Norman, fatally throttles him and slurps the tea before exiting.

While the Sheriff (a monotone Harry Shannon) and the Coroner (Emmet Vogan) later ponder over the post-mortem mould on Norman’s neck, Amina comes to, now sporting the Nefertiti white temple streak as worn famously by The Bride of Frankenstein. ‘MUMMY BELIEVED TO BE BACK IN NEW ENGLAND’ blazes the newspaper headline, even though he apparently never left. At least someone is surprised by the bandaged behemoth. When Bey concocts a cupful, he shows no reaction at all at seeing the 3000 year-old Kharis despite this presumably being the first time he’s ever witnessed a walking mummy.

Master and servant head to the Scripps Museum where Bey instructs Kharis to pick up Ananka’s body from her sarcophagus. It is too late. Upon touching her body, the wrappings disintegrate. “By thy will, her soul has entered another form” intones the Tea-boy of the Nile, acknowledging the mighty Amon-Ra.  A cut to a shrieking Amina answers the audience’s next question. Kharis kills the gun-toting security guard before he and Bey search for their mistress’s new body.
In the meantime, Inspector Walgreen is on the case - a terse portrayal by Barton Maclane who gave similar grittiness twice under director John Huston in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949). He has no time for the supernatural theorising by Coroner Dr Ayad (Lester Sharpe) as to how Ananka’s body could vanish leaving her shed bandages uncut. “Sounds like a lotta apple sauce to me”, grumbles Walgreen.

A much greater reverence for the occult can be witnessed in Bey’s unintentionally funny plea to Amon-Ra for clues to the Princess’s host. “Shed your light upon the darkness of my groping”, begs Carradine with {ahem} feeling. Fortunately, a mystic light curtails that and signals where they can find Amina. They abduct her and set us up for a climax that makes the paucity of budget and ideas glaringly obvious. Far from the elaborate temples in The Mummy or The Mummy’s Hand, or even the Banning mansion aflame in The Mummy’s Tomb, what we get here is a shed. Perched atop a train track on a dirt road, it is a dismal effort at a set-piece. Even the locals’ vigilante march has its threat level neutered by being led to the location by Tom’s dog, Lassie-style.

Running on fumes now, the formula at least has the residual sparks of personal greed that can be relied upon to seduce every acolyte just as they are about to hand over the Princess to their gods. Bey’s inner demon dares to suggest the blasphemous “What about your destiny as a man?” As he grows more avaricious, Amina becomes more mummified, her hair turning vivid white and her skin deteriorating into wrinkled parchment. Envious Kharis senses that once again the High Priest has backed the wrong horse and sends Bey to an amusingly dummy-substituted death. After a grapple with Tom, the mummy carries Amina (now lost to Ananka) into the swamp.

As distraught Tom watches his girlfriend submerged into reincarnated reunion with Kharis, there is a chilling reprise of Zucco’s priestly warning: “The fate of those who defy the will of the ancient gods shall be a cruel and violent death”. We can only surmise this refers to Bey since poor Amina didn’t deserve her holy hijacking.

At the end of the year, The Mummy’s Curse would appear to put the last nail in this franchise’s sarcophagus - that is until Abbott and Costello’s comedy writers used the rejuvenating power of laughter…

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

WEIRD WOMAN (1944)

Between 1943 and 1945 Universal plugged their contracted star Lon Chaney Jr into a series of six low-budget mystery-horror films based on the popular 1940s Inner Sanctum radio show. The translation to film seemed an obvious one as the original radio version starred many notable horror actors of the era, such as Boris Karloff, who played in more than 15 of them, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Orson Welles – even a very young Frank Sinatra. These eerie, modest little suspense tales were ideally suited to the B-movie format, each beginning with a darkly humorous introduction from the host Spirit of the Inner Sanctum - Raymond Edward Johnson in the radio version and an uncredited David Hoffman in the films.

Weird Woman (1944), the second of the film run, is an amiable time-passer with an unusually strong, female-centric cast. It was directed by Reginald Le Borg who later that year would direct Chaney again in The Mummy’s Ghost. The script by Scott Darling and Brenda Weisberg was adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife about a supernaturally sceptical college professor in a town of practising witches. Upon discovering his wife is one of them, he persuades her to burn her occult trinkets. which then dramatically turns his luck for the worst. The couple are thus rendered vulnerable to the opposing witches’ demonic powers.

Some of the novel’s basic plot was retained for Weird Woman, the major difference being the origin of
how sociology Professor Norman Reed meets his wife and the depth of scheming amongst the wives of academia that doesn’t need witchcraft’s assistance. Hoffman’s distorted face in a crystal ball introduces the tale, underscored by a sinister organ, as he warns the audience that “Even you…without knowing…can commit murder”.

Chaney is a somewhat unlikely casting as the “mental giant” academic Professor Reed, sporting a distinguished moustache to offset the blue-collar connotations. To give him some suggestion of depth, his role is saddled with a tediously repeated device of an inner monologue delivered in an intimate whispered tone. This kicks in straight away as Reed begins to obsess privately about his new wife Paula (Anne Gwynne) who seems to be going walkabout in the night without telling him. Gwynne had already featured in the occult-flavoured horrors Black Friday (1940) and The Black Cat (1941). Here, a flashback shows us that she is the product of an upbringing by a cult High Priestess in the South Pacific when the pith-helmeted prof meets her. By improbable coincidence she happens to be the daughter of a professor who taught Reed.

Reed whisks her away from camp-fire tribal frugging, beads and ju-ju into the more clandestinely sinister world of modern American college politics. There is stiff competition on campus for the new sociology chairmanship post and Reed is being considered opposite Professor Millard Sawtelle (Ralph Morgan). Sawtelle harbours the guilty secret that his published book on South Pacific island practises plagiarised a student’s unpublished thesis. He daren’t tell Evelyn, his nakedly ambitious Lady Macbeth of a wife (Elizabeth Russell, she of the exotic high cheekbones and mystery from the Cat People films).

Meanwhile, there is even more competition for the position of Queen Bee of dastardly plotting amongst the ladies. Evelyn Ankers’ Ilona Carr watches with barely-disguised jealous venom as Reed brings home his island bride. He and Ilona had enjoyed what he thought was a “pleasant flirtation”. Jilted, she opts for upgrading her designs on him by any means necessary. This was Ankers’ fourth movie partnered with Chaney after The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Son of Dracula (1943) and her aggressor role makes a refreshing change after being more passive glamorous victims.

If two isn’t enough, another femme fatale is waiting in the wings to ensnare Reed. Margaret (Lois Collier) is a calculating young student eager to assist him extra-carricularly, much to the frustration of her spurned boyfriend David Jennings (Phil Brown). This is the other invigorating change for a 1940’s horror film where the three conniving women (practically a coven) - plus Paula – drive the plot twists, leaving the men eclipsed and on the back foot of reeling from their machinations.

Despite her uncivilised raising on an island of primitive witchcraft, Paula is shrewd enough to sense Ilona and Evelyn’s deviousness behind her husband’s back. Instead of heeding her, Reed refuses to open his mind to her beliefs. When he discovers her nocturnal ramblings were to a churchyard to perform rituals for his protection, he convinces her to burn her occult props. (He is after all the newly-celebrated author of ‘Superstition Vs Reason and Fact’). As we saw from the novel, this plunges the Reeds into a nightmare of deadly conspiracy. “You left us at the mercy of evils”, Paula tells him. No sooner has Paula’s talisman been toasted, Ilona kills Evelyn’s husband and attempts to pin the blame on Reed. The homicidally jealous David confronts Reed in the gym with a gun and accidentally shoots himself.

As the forces of multiple women scorned close in on him, Chaney plays to his strength, that of the haunted victim of the supernatural. Elsewhere the actor rather than the character appears awkward and stiff when trying to challenge the devilish ladies.  Almost literally at the eleventh hour, Evelyn develops a conscience about mistakenly accusing Reed of killing Sawtelle and turns the tables upon Ilona. She plants a voodoo doll at Ilona’s home, sowing the seeds of fear in her that ultimately drive Ilona to fall through a greenhouse, hanging herself from the vines at a prophesied minute past midnight.


To its credit, Weird Woman demonstrates that classic era horror films benefitted from creating active, interesting parts for their female cast rather than constantly reducing them to imperilled decorative baubles. Unfortunately, the B-movie was usually too far under the radar to impact on the rest of the industry..

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

SHOAH (1985)

“Don’t be sore at me. You want history. I’m giving you history”.
FRANZ SUCHOMEL (SS Officer - Treblinka Extermination camp)

To summarise Claude Lanzmann’s immense nine-and-a-half hour epic documentary Shoah (1985) is a reductive undertaking that simply cannot do justice to its monumental scope. Filmed and edited over 11 years across 14 countries, it presents the viewer with an account of the Nazi Holocaust focusing on three Polish extermination camps and the Warsaw ghetto. Split into four parts, it is delivered entirely as on-camera interviews with Jewish survivors, officers and resident local witnesses.

Lanzmann was originally hired by Israeli officials to make a much shorter film of around two hours focusing on the Jewish viewpoint. Later, their funding was taken away, resulting in a colossal 350 hours of footage for Lanzmann and his editor Ziva Postec. They spent five years working to shape the material, initially not knowing what the over-riding theme would now be. Eventually, it became clear that death would be the main focus. This may seem obvious but it wasn’t simply the appalling murder of the victims, but how death is faced or denied. There is the death of hope for those camp prisoners who saw no salvation coming to rescue them, the death of conscience demonstrated by Nazi officers, or locals whose self-preservation blinded them to what they knew was happening in their midst. There is also the gradual death, the erosion of previously good souls, those German prisoners-turned-work detail soldiers (‘Sonderkommandoes’) like Filip Müller who realised that they were killing their own inner humanity along with their fellow Jews by being complicit in the disposal of gas chamber victims: “Your feeling disappeared. You were dead.”

Part of the power of Shoah is in its simplicity. Unlike many documentaries, it doesn’t use any archive footage, a linking narrator, or any dramatised scenes (a distracting and slightly questionable technique that can undermine attempted veracity by using artistic interpretation). Everything we learn comes entirely from the mouths of those who experienced and bore witness to the horrific atrocities perpetrated in the worst of human history.

This is not to say that the film is an artless collage – far from it. Lanzmann and Postec carefully crafted a structure that allows emotionally charged, intense scenes to be interspersed with calmer travelogue-like footage of Corfu, Poland, and America, allowing us to decompress and explore somewhat lighter interviews – at least on the surface. The opening scene for example is immediately beguiling in its set-up, showing us Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of the notorious Chelmno death camp. He is shown being boated peacefully down a Polish river. He sings a light song as he goes along. We then learn that this little ditty was taught to him by the Nazi officers, who ordered him to sing for their relaxation. His still-charming voice may be what helped to save his life. The boat is not taking him for pleasure, but back in time to the area of Chelmno wasteland upon which “They burned people here” he simply utters. Throughout the film, he maintains an eerie impassive poise, all the more touching for what he must have been through to reach that state.

There are moral and ethical questions galore within Shoah and not just shown by the subjects. Degrees of complicity are addressed. Early in the first of the four parts, Lanzmann and his translator question the local farmhands of Chelmno through whose neighbourhood the trains travelled, crammed with prisoners on their way to barbaric extermination. Rather than pretend any retrospective concern, some men still distanced themselves out of self-preservation. One man, relating it to his neighbour said: “Well, it’s this way…If l cut my finger, it doesn't hurt him”.

The most famous scene and one that touches on the issue of complicity by Jewish prisoners is the interview with Jewish barber Abraham Bomba. He survived Treblinka by leading a team of sixteen barbers; their job was to cut the hair of each batch of victims within the gas chamber itself (many of them female and children) whilst never letting on that they would never leave that room alive. Lanzmann drew criticism for the contrived staging of the interview as it depicts Bomba cutting a friend’s hair in a Tel Aviv barbershop years after his retirement as he recalls his role. This seems unjust and misses the point. Firstly, the most vital aspect is surely the content of the hideous story Bomba unpacks before our eyes, not the circumstances of the telling. After all, we are not being presented with fake or staged eyewitness evidence. Secondly, as the barber recounts his experience, the startling composure he can maintain whilst working and talking suddenly breaks down. He is confronted with reliving the reunions he had in that chamber with his friends and neighbours from whom he hid the secret of their imminent murders. The enormous burden of guilt he has been carrying for so long cannot be shielded from him any longer by busy work and it is hugely poignant to watch. Lanzmann’s plan to have him distracted by multi-tasking may well have allowed him to continue as long as he did, to give us more of this crucial testimony, than otherwise in a simple camera interview without any activity.

“I can’t do it. It’s too horrible” says Bomba, weeping and wiping his face with a towel.

“You have to”, pushes Lanzmann softly. “I apologise...but you have to”.

Lanzmann’s pressure upon Bomba whilst the camera zooms in tightly on him is a controversial gambit, but one that has to be balanced with the need for future generations to understand exactly what happened – and one that I would hope was ultimately cathartic for the man himself.

Possibly the strongest accusation of crossing ethical boundaries was levelled at Lanzmann over his unrepentant betrayal of the confidence of former SS officers such as Franz Suchomel who agreed to be interviewed only on audio-tape and on condition that their identities would not be revealed. (Lanzmann not only broke this agreement, he even shows the street name of Suchomel’s home which could have led to retribution after Shoah’s release). While wearing a mic, Lanzmann was concealing a video camera within a nearby bag to film his subject, relayed to an outside VW Transporter van containing two technicians and a somewhat conspicuous antenna on the roof. The picture quality is a slightly grainy monochrome, yet clearly shows Suchomel matter-of-factly explaining the layout of the Treblinka camp on a board, aided by a pointer, as though describing a circuit diagram to engineering students. In fact, his choice of words barely conceals admiration for the almost business-like processing of humans to their death. “People burn very well”. The souls destroyed had been dehumanised by bureaucratic language well before their physical dispatch by these soldiers. Auschwitz-Birkenau conveyed its victims like “a factory”, whereas his smaller Treblinka site was “a production line of death”.

This detail arguably reinforces Suchomel’s stark testimony more resoundingly than solely audio could. In his autobiography Lanzmann justified his deception as ‘tricking the tricksters’. Indeed there is sickening anecdotal evidence in the film that far more monstrous deceptions were perpetrated upon the prisoners, for example to pacify them into willingly going to the gas chambers. One camp Commandant assuaged crowd fears by eliciting random people’s trades from them, assuring them that after a hygienic shower their talents would be put to good use in camp work. This merely hastened their procession through to a gas execution and eventual burning in the underground ovens.

Such is the breadth of the human experience on offer in Shoah that the footage could have been weighted to support any number of themes or aspects of the Holocaust experience. Although it is almost impossible to extract anything positive from the senseless and unchecked destruction of millions of innocent victims, the very fact that there are survivors who could endure and give their testimony here offers a tiny hint of the indomitability of human spirit still unextinguished.  As Filip Müller says: “Where there’s life, hope must never be relinquished”. The tragic possibility of their living testimony going unrecorded also helps to justify the measures taken to capture them  so that future generations may at least hear them if not learn from them.

Many hours of unused footage were used to create four more films by Lanzmann: A Visitor from the Living (1997) based on an interview with the Red Cross’s Maurice Rossel, Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m. (2001) which details the prisoner uprising at the Sobibor camp, The Karski Report (2010) expanding upon the Shoah scenes of diplomat Jan Karski as he took his eyewitness account of the Warsaw ghetto to President Roosevelt, and 2013’s The Last of the Unjust which examines the Final Solution and interviews with the President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto.


Much more previously unused film from Shoah has also since been released on the internet by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

VOODOO MAN (1944)

Having gained a temporary reprieve from his Monogram Nine contract to do Columbia’s marginally better Return of the Vampire (1943), Bela Lugosi was soon back to hacking away at the coal-face of crapness on his last two contractual obligations. The next released (but filmed second to complete the Nine) was the dull and dreadful Voodoo Man, whose only saving grace was a chance to see him teamed up with two other noted horror actors George Zucco and John Carradine. However, here his co-stars are only required to be one-noted which somewhat scuppers the definition of value for money.

Once more, producers Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz assembled a script, cast and crew in the same way a toddler assembles playpen bricks though without any of the eventful results. Our old friend William ‘One-take’ Beaudine directed again, still proving as we will see that as long as the players are alive and making vaguely coherent sounds before the camera, that’s good enough to move onto the next location. The tragic excuse for a plot and dialogue is passable in the same way as a kidney stone – invisibly and painfully. The writer Robert Charles was only credited with one other screenplay, the same year’s infamous and very rare Return of the Ape Man (filmed just before Voodoo Man). I’ve been ‘lucky’ enough to acquire this and will be reviewing it soon for your questionable benefit.

Lugosi plays the Lenin-bearded Dr Marlow, a variation on his gallery of urbane and insane mesmerics that by now took no more energy from him than a screensaver. He is engaged in abducting beautiful young women not for the old chestnut of sinister research, but the equally over-used warhorse of reviving his wife’s suspended animation, which at least allows him the extra inspiration of spousal grief he channelled in 1934’s The Black Cat (reviewed here) amongst others.

It could be worse, he could be George Zucco. (You know you’re in for a rough ride when the normally better-appointed Zucco takes a poor second to him in a horror movie). The seemingly indestructable High Priest of Universal’s The Mummy sequels had some down-time before one last burn of the incense in The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). Here as Nicholas he begins by serving as a gas station look-out alerting fellow conspirators of incoming potential victims before . The first prey we see is Alice (Terry Walker) whose exit is given Zucco’s beady-eyed stare of intent before he reaches for the ‘phone. Competing for the title of MUVP (‘Most UnderValued Player’) is John Carradine as one of the two henchmen. Following his brace of mad scientist roles in 1943’s Captive Wild Woman and Revenge of the Zombies (reviewed), the talent that gave us Jim Casy’s hobo preacher in John Ford’s poetic Grapes of Wrath (1940) has to make do with being a scrawny simpleton in the employ of Dr Marlow. He would spiral even further down the lurid funhouse slide of bad movies in the future. Along with Pat McKee’s Grego, he sets up road diversions luring the ladies into nebulous medical experimentation.

Meanwhile Ralph (Tod Andrews) is a Hollywood screenwriter visiting his boss at the Banner Motion Picture Company – yes, the same firm who in real life made these jalopies for Monogram. To further the in-joke, his boss S.K. (John Ince) shares the same initials as producer Sam Katzman.  The newspaper coverage of these victims’ disappearance piques S.K.’s interest as a movie idea, inexplicably so since the article literally only states that three have vanished that month along with their cars. “Some kind of horror story” he suggests. Presumably from such soggy clay are Monogram sculptures thrown together.

Ralph is luckier in his coincidental meetings than in his employment. On his way to see his fiancé, he runs out of gas and is picked up Stella Saunders – another spunky role for Louise Currie after her sassy photographer in The Ape Man (1943). She just happen to be his fiancé’s cousin. When her car breaks down, Stella is kidnapped by the redneck henchmen while Ralph goes to that same house to use their ‘phone for help, thus ending his run of freakish good luck.

Stella and Ralph now find themselves embroiled in the bizarre cult shenanigans of Marlow and Nicholas, who are attempting to find a suitable “girl with a perfect affinity” to mentally link with Marlow’s wife Evelyn (Ellen Hall) thus reviving her from a twenty-two year catatonic state. Nicholas is convinced that the goddess he worships holds the key - “But remember- Ramboona is all-powerful!” She’d need to be as the three-stage process they must undergo to invoke her is bafflingly funny.

Lugosi sits between wife and captive subject Stella intoning vague nonsense about “Emotion to emotion. Life…to death” (recalling Spock’s strangely touching “My mind…to your mind” in his superior Star Trek mind-melds). Meanwhile McKee and Carradine sit in on bongos. (At one point a shot of the latter’s whacked-out banging suggests what he’s channelling instead is a Woodstock hippie who touched the brown acid). The worst casualty though is Zucco. From this point on, Nicholas is a embarrassingly attired, laughably threadbare gobbledigook-spouting version of his aforementioned Universal role. He and Lugosi both sport comedy sketch ceremonial occult robes: black silk adorned with stars and a large obviously symbolic ‘7’ - less The Devil Rides out and more The Wizard of Oz - that couldn’t telegraph more obviously if they advertised ‘I’m up to no good’ on the back. Poor George suffers the even greater indignity of a leopard-skin bandanna topped with a crazy frightwig and a child’s Red Indian face-paint. There are so many interminable inserts of his satanic mumbo-jumbo delivery at the altar that he’d have been better off turning in into a cash bar for fun and profit.

Dr Marlowe grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t find a woman with the right spiritual faculties to bring back Evelyn to him. She is so delicate, bless her, that he warns his sinister housekeeper Mrs Benton that “A sudden bright light will disintegrate her”. Someone should tell cinematographer Marcel Le Picard since in every scene he bathes everyone in strong lamps, most noticeably when Lugosi is shown doing his Svengali mesmerism. His face is often almost clown-white in close-ups under a generalised light blast.

There is no need to compound the confusion by delving too deeply into the remaining dregs of plot. Ralph reunites with fiancé Betty (Wanda McKay) and they become amateur sleuths getting to the remarkably shallow bottom of the mystery disappearances. They rescue Stella from post-experimental wandering in the forest, prompting Betty to observe “You know, I’ve seen people act like that in pictures. What do they call them? Zombies or something?” Before we can remark about the alternate name of ‘contract players’, the coincidence hits keep on coming as Dr Marlowe is brought in to examine Stella. Gleefully, they have played into his hands by presenting him with his missing victim, albeit with such a layman’s recommendation of bed-rest that it isn’t long before the couple suspect him of foul play. That’s just as well as Marlowe has Nicholas remotely hypnotise Betty into coming to him as a much more promising catalyst for Evelyn.

The virtual Miss America pageant of four lovely women kept on hand in the basement and pawed over by the babbling Carradine shows that even Monogram had access to the deluge of young hopefuls continually bussing into Tinseltown. Mind you, looks will only get you so far. When the Sheriff (Henry Hall) finally shoots Dr Marlow dead, the awakened version of Evelyn is just as sleepy as the catatonic one.

The epilogue ends Voodoo Man with more of the tongue-in-cheek humour that it began with, whereby Ralph returns to S.K. having turned his wacky adventures into a screenplay. “Voodoo Man, eh? Is it any good?” asks his boss. By way of an answer, Ralph suggests “Why don’t you get that actor Bela Lugosi. It’s right up his alley.” Leaving aside whether this qualifies as truth or defamation of character, Voodoo Man the celluloid suppository certainly went that way...

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943)

After The Jazz Singer (1927) ushered in the unavoidable age of sound, M-G-M saw an opportunity to refashion one of their biggest hits. Much as record labels later tempted 1980s buyers to ‘double-dip’ by selling them the same albums twice on both vinyl and then CD, the studio wanted to re-release 1925’s Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney retro-fitted for sound to encourage more revenue. At a relatively low cost of $113,000 against its original budget of $632,000, they shot new spoken dialogue scenes to replace 40% of the original silent version (ultimately reaping $419,000 profit as a result). M-G-M wanted Chaney to dub his famous performance, but the visually breath-taking actor long held an aversion to being de-mystified by sound, only eventually relaxing his stance once for the 1930 remake of his earlier classic The Unholy Three. Such was Chaney’s resistance that his contract had a clause forbidding the studio from post-dubbing his scenes on screen. They circumvented this by writing third-person narrative dialogue for another actor and applying the lines over shots of Chaney’s phantom in shadow. The result was a profit of $419,000. A tragic post-script is that due to his death in 1930, audiences never got to see Chaney in the talking role he could not have turned down, the immortal Dracula (1931) that instead shot Bela Lugosi to stardom.

A less successful technology used in the 1925 version was the still-new feature film use of two-colour Technicolor (Process 2 in its history), which gave us the unforgettable scarlet-drenched grotesquerie of the Phantom’s posturing in the Masked Ball scene. Although the format dated from 1916 and produced vibrant colours, it suffered from a number of problems including focus issues due to the special Technicolor cameras exposing consecutive frames of film to either a green or red filter that weren’t quite in sync with each other when later combined onto a single print. The next generation of two-strip (Process 3) was used in horror films such as Warner Brothers’ Dr X (1932) and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (reviewed here and here), but despite its superiority of image never caught on in the post-Depression austerity years.

Into the later Thirties, Technicolor had advanced to ‘three-strip’, a three-colour camera, which so impressed pioneering animation boss Walt Disney that he had the process under exclusive contract for his Silly Symphonies shorts (e.g. 1933’s Three Little Pigs) up to 1935. Disney’s huge box-office success with the full Technicolor cartoon feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) convinced other studios to risk shooting their live-action features in the format. There were still limitations – the size and weight of the special Technicolor cameras, with attendant costs pushed higher by needing specialist technicians and colour supervisors, and the stifling heat caused by the slow film speed requiring much stronger lights on set.  The cast of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz suffered for their gloriously photographed art under temperatures beyond one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and reputed cases of permanent eye damage from the brightness.

By the time Universal came to remake Phantom of the Opera in 1943, Technicolor was a luxury mostly reserved for lavish musicals, so we’re very fortunate to have these vibrant colours available in a horror film of the period. However, this also hints at the controversial concessions made for this version of Phantom in favour of a light musical more than a straight horror movie. Versatile director Arthur Lubin’s credits included the first five star vehicles for Abbott and Costello, combining comedy and music. 1941’s Hold that Ghost (reviewed here) also added frissons of chills – and in that year Variety named Lubin Hollywood’s most commercially successful director. As far as full-blooded horror movie credentials go, Lubin had directed Karloff and Lugosi in 1940’s entertaining Black Friday and producer George Waggner had previously scored a franchise-generating hit with The Wolf Man.

The casting also reflected Universal’s slant toward a wider musical genre audience. For the crucial central role of ingénue soprano Christine Dubois, they chose 17 year-old Susanna Foster, a gifted singer under contract with an awesome range reaching a rare piercing high C top note. The part was a dream come true for Foster. She idolised operetta star Jeanette McDonald who’d starred in eight musical films opposite classical baritone Nelson Eddy such as Naughty Marietta (1935) and now she was about to co-star with Eddy as one of her romantic suitors in Phantom, the Paris Opera’s baritone Anatole. Eddy was a huge star both as a classical recording artist and musical film actor. To fit him into this role, Universal insisted on dying his blonde hair dark brown, a move which he only agreed to when resident make-up supremo Jack Pierce concocted a special dye for him.

The amorous love triangle in this conception of Phantom was another conceit in Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay that wasn’t in the original Gaston LeRoux novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra nor any past or future film adaptations. Though experienced pure horror writers (Taylor on The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula, and Hoffenstein on the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for example – all covered in this blog), they invented a comedic rivalry between police Inspector Raoul, a noble Vicomte in the source book, and the newly-inserted Anatole. This pandered shrewdly to light-hearted musical convention and was an excuse to shoehorn in operatic numbers during the film. Their vying for Christine’s attention works quite well with running gags of repeatedly trapping each other in the doorway as they pursue her, and both speaking the same wooing lines in synch. Balancing Eddy’s ardent artist, the philistine Raoul by contrast is played with an effective formality by Edgar Barrier, the mystery mask shop owner we shall see later that year in Flesh and Fantasy.

The most interesting change of emphasis comes in the conception and portrayal of the title opera ghost himself. Firstly, Universal selected the elegant and highly-regarded Claude Rains, who at that time was between studio contracts. Somehow the tasteful Rains always seemed to avoid the worst of Hollywood horror in his career, allying himself with the better genre projects. His distinctive honeyed tones caressed and bullied with surprising menace in James Whale’s marvellous The Invisible Man (1933) and he made a touchingly sympathetic father to Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man (1941).  This reiteration of Phantom of the Opera called for an actor of his subtle sensitivity (also memorably showcased as Captain Renault in 1942’s classic Casablanca) as it front-loads his character with an origin story right from the beginning aimed at maximum audience sympathy instead of fearful alienation.

Rains’ Erique Claudin is not a remote monster but a warped, lonely soul we see corrupted by unrequited romantic yearning, misunderstanding and then a terrible, all-consuming revenge obsession. We are introduced to him as a humble violinist in the Paris Opera worshipping understudy Christine from the orchestra pit. Such is his love for her that he’s been ploughing almost all of his low salary into funding her training as an undisclosed benefactor. When they meet outside the manager’s office there is a poignant tenderness to his awkward conversation.

His boss regrets being forced to fire him due to revealed arthritis, prompting the desperate Claudin to seek a buyer for a concerto he wrote. Seeking submission feedback from publisher Mr Pleyel (Miles Mander), he is rudely dismissed; however when he overhears the famous Franz Liszt playing it in a back room, he confuses the overheard maestro’s appreciation as a cover-up for disguised theft, and launches himself in fury at Pleyel - “Thief! You stole my music!” In Claudin’s fatal homicidal rage upon Pleyel, he is doused with etching acid by an assistant. By the time the fatally scarred fugitive flees into the Opera House sewers (brilliantly interpreted by Alexander Golitzen and John B. Goodman) his conscience and face are scarred by double murder.

A hastily-grabbed prop mask before his disappearance begins the crafting of the Phantom’s iconic look that will haunt the Opera in caped shadowy form from now on. A useful existing Opera Ghost legend precedes him, preserving his mystique under the erroneous description of possessing a protruding chin and long nose. (An amusing later gag sees the bumbling co-manager Vercheres (Steven Geray) pantomiming the Ghost he is chasing to a bemused chorus actor whom he suddenly realises shares the same features).

Although this 1943 remake somewhat waters down the raw Grand Guignol operatics of Lon Chaney’s seminal version, Universal clearly spared no expense in realising a ravishing chocolate box of visuals. Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus was always on set approving every superb costume piece and set decoration item that went before the lenses of the studio’s acclaimed cinematographer Hal Mohr and Technicolor’s own cameraman W. Howard Greene. Though by all accounts she was painfully exacting upon the crew and director, the results are ravishing and won the film richly-deserved Oscars for cinematography and art direction. Despite the lack of similarity with the 1925 original, the Paris Opera House interior was actually the same set from that version sumptuously redressed – going on to feature cost-effectively in many more Universal films e.g. The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

Another subtle departure was in the Phantom’s facial disfiguration eventually unmasked by Christine.
Chaney’s grotesque skull face was surely the most startlingly unforgettable of his ‘thousand faces’. Rains though was acutely aware of wanting to avoid the possibility of monster typecasting, a fear that ultimately discouraged a fellow front-runner for the part, Cary Grant from taking the role. More important than actor vanity, the early Forties had real-life scarred war veterans still returning home, and it was felt necessary to limit anything adding to the traumas of ostracism that may have already awaited some. Jack Pierce had to test many facial prosthetics upon Rains until a half-faced textured skin appliance with a drooping eye met his approval. To be fair, this allowed Rains to earn our sympathy with feeling from his unblemished side while repulsing his on-screen enemies.

As the Phantom, Rains channels a more refined vengeance in lieu of monstrous external theatrics. Both extremes and points in between can be justified in the same way that no two Hamlets are the same. Like all great mask performances, and indeed mask-work as therapy, this type of role ironically reveals, rather than hides, the personality of the player. This is not to say Chaney’s portrayal was simply surface bravura. His silent screen physicality denoted a wonderfully tuned instrument reflecting internalised conflict and grace as well. And for my personal preference, there is a satisfying grandeur of aspect to his Phantom that Rains lacks – a vicarious thrill we get in watching him avenge himself. I love the insane die-hard futility of his pretend grenade held aloft before the mob descends on him at the end of his reign of terror.

Rains on the other hand pierces our hearts with the corrosive implosion of his lonesome pain, and he has the advantage of turning his expressive voice into a macabre, childlike insistence to the prisoner of his perverted love. “Now you’ll sing for me and I’ll play – and we’ll be together for ever”, he urges, reminiscent of Andrew Robinson’s giggling wacko Scorpio in Dirty Harry. (Fans of Val Lewton may notice what could be an homage to 1942’s Cat People when he coos “You’ll love the dark too. It’s friendly and peaceful”. Simone Simon’s Irene also describes it as friendly).

Lubin also ensures that stacked against the Phantom are worthy supporting nemeses. Aside from the unfeeling company management, there is Jane Farrar’s splendidly haughty diva Mme Biancaroli. She schemes treacherously to eclipse show saviour Christine after the Phantom poisons her, until she gets a warm hand – terminally around her throat.

Raoul and his officers rescue Christine from the Phantom’s dank subterranean home just as the crumbling walls collapse. To Lubin’s credit, he doesn’t lose sight of the tragic plight of Erique Claudin behind the mask and the mayhem. Christine cannot help but feel sorrow for the man who gave up everything for the music in her. “I always felt drawn to him with a kind of pity…understanding”.

We are left with an enigmatic sign-off by the Phantom of an artfully placed violin, bow and mask across them. And was that the sound of his escape we heard in the background? Well, it was intended to be. Universal wanted to film a sequel, but this was rejected by Rains. A follow-on was made starring Boris Karloff; The Climax (1944) helmed by producer-director Waggner echoed Phantom in its dark themes of prima-donna murder and Svengali-like protégé influence, yet these alongside the return of Susanna Foster in a similar role were the only shared elements.


After a less stellar 1962 remake by Terence Fisher for Hammer, Phantom of the Opera was of course ultimately staged as a fully-fledged, industry-dominating musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber (as well as a successful non-musical theatre drama by Ken Hill). It is this incarnation that many people think of when the story is mentioned. This show cleaves closer to Leroux’s book and has made the Opera Ghost a happy home in London’s West End since 1989 – as well as spawning its own film starring Gerard Butler in 2004. Arguably, each generation’s interpretation just proves the longevity and flexibility of this classic tale. No doubt the Angel of Music will be a muse to inspire many more…

Monday, 15 May 2017

THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943)


A week after Universal siphoned off the undignified corpuscles from their vampire franchise with the woeful Son of Dracula (reviewed here), Columbia got their teeth into an unofficial sequel themselves. The Return of the Vampire (1943) couldn’t mention the Prince of Darkness by name since Universal still owned the name copyright, and is little better than their own follow-ons, but at least had the fading cachet of the originating star Bela Lugosi. It would be the last time he was top-billed in a major studio horror film and was shot just before he fulfilled the last two movies in his unintentionally shocking Monogram Nine contract. Although The Return of the Vampire is very much a B-movie, its representation of the aristocratic bloodsucker is carried off with more visual flair and is worth seeing for its unusually strong heroine and for its updated plot acknowledging the urban impact of the still-raging Second World War.

In establishing its story, the studio clearly copied not just the central figure but also Universal’s recent craze for reducing its monsters to dire team-up vehicles. For his Columbia version under director Lew Landers, Lugosi is at first teasingly hidden as a shadowy vampire awakened by his manservant Andreas (Matt Willis) in an English cemetery. Eschewing the usual drooling hunchback, Andreas is actually a werewolf, though inexplicably maintaining an intact smart suit instead of shredded clothing (did he retain the gentlemanly rectitude to put this on post-transformation?).

Randall Faye and Griffin Jay’s screenplay is stronger on plot than on the pedestrian dialogue that accompanies it. Within the ten minute prologue, Lugosi is introduced as Dr Armand Tesla, former eighteenth-century occult expert and present-day nightcrawler, and in Dr Saunders we get an early nemesis who identifies and pursues him with impressive deductive speed (albeit in the very under-powered form of Gilbert Emery – Sir Basil in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter). Spouting clunky exposition worthy of Ed Wood, Tesla tells Andreas “Your fate is to be what you are, and mine is to be what I am - your master.” Jay’s other scripts included four of Universal’s Mummy sequels and more lycanthropic mayhem in Cry of the Werewolf (1946) starring this film’s female target Nina Foch.

L.W. O’Connell and John Stumar also help to offset the ear-bashing with some artful visual tableaux of Lugosi on his elegant rampage. At the horizon of the graveyard, he exits on his blood mission in a bravura, bat-like spreading of cape amid the ground fog  - providing you don’t notice how much his face-concealing high collar is reminiscent of the notorious bid to hide his post-mortem replacement in Plan 9 From Outer Space).
 

 Throughout the film, Landers ensures that all of his entrances and exits have a worthy theatrical flourish, bettering Universal’s tossed-off clumsy cuts to a rubber bat by subtle camera moves and only using ethereal metamorphoses between vampire and mist.

The other plus point of the film is the surprising feminist slant (for the 1940s) on heroism.  Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) begins as the concerned mother of an anaemic patient, Tesla’s opening blood-bank withdrawal. After his grand-daughter is similarly bitten, Saunders equally anaemically goes into action to protect their other shared children. Together they source Tesla’s coffin and stake him, much to the chagrin of Andreas who then mercifully transforms back into innocent human form. From this point, Lady Jane gradually becomes a capable, indeed formidable female protagonist. Twenty-three years later, she is employing the recovered Andreas as a lab technician whilst single-handedly fending off a possible murder arrest by Scotland Yard’s Sir Frederick (Miles Mander - Deacon Foster in The House of the Seven Gables) over the mysterious execution of a preposterous so-called vampire. Lady Jane not only defends herself admirably but will soon go on the attack against Tesla in a manner that would eclipse any typical male vampire-hunter for sheer forthright conviction.

Another refreshing angle in The Return of the Vampire is the weaving-in of the ever-present threat of wartime aerial bombardment to increase the peril. Although the film was made two years after the horrific London Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941, the production deserves some credit for presenting a modern London that doesn’t ignore the real-world jeopardy that audiences had been experiencing outside the cinema. Stock-footage portrays a Nazi bombing raid whose impact involuntarily exhumes Tesla’s corpse from his coffin out into the open . A pair of labourers arrive at the cemetery, one of which is the lovable walrus-moustached silent comedy star Billy Bevan (already racking up cockney cameos in horror movie franchises such as Dracula’s Daughter, The Invisible Man Returns, and the 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). “There’s a blasted spike stickin’ out of ‘is chest!” he exclaims, removing the spike for re-burial, thus re-activating Tesla. Hey, how was the kindly Bevan to know the consequences?

The plot then essentially boils down to a power struggle between Dr Tesla and Lady Jane for the soul of the now-adult Nicky. Nina Foch is required to do little other than be a very attractive potential bride of {not *cough*} Dracula. A dramatic high-light is a highly effective confrontational scene between Inescort and Lugosi where they engage in a charged face-off of good versus evil while she plays the organ. Lugosi waxes poetic in customary Svengali mode about his intentions for Nicky: “Her soul will wander through the night, and you will never find where her body rests. And then in another form she will come back for John.” (Nicky’s fiancé).

Underneath her veddy British received tones, Inescort demonstrates a strength of purpose that today would be depicted by the heroine being yet another twirling variation of sexy, black-leather-clad martial artist (you know, for boys). Here, she embodies an unbreakable force of protective intent simply by personal conviction, replying to Tesla firstly “Even your power cannot stand against the power of faith and goodness” before scorching him with the reflection of a concealed crucifix from behind her sheet music.

Eventually Tesla helps to seal his own fate by his own monstrous arrogance in leaving the wounded Andreas (who he had hypnotised back into lupine service) to die. The spurned werewolf rewards his unfair dismissal by saving Nicky‘s life and then dragging Tesla out onto the rubble-strewn streets for a literally striking murder in the sunlight. Andreas’s use of a brick and a makeshift stake on Lugosi surrounded by bomb damage makes a powerful and unusual climax to a vampire film. Tesla’s face melts into a waxen mask over his dead skull.

The Return of the Vampire would have benefitted from ending right there, but Landers drops the ball by adding a daft epilogue. Sir Frederick appeals in vain to the key cast for some healthy disbelief about these incredible events, and then unnecessarily breaks the fourth wall to ask us “And do you people?”  Well, we were amiably going along for the ride until you brought it up...

Saturday, 13 May 2017

LA MAIN DU DIABLE (1943)

The twenty-first of April 1943 was a big day for the two generations of the Tourneur film-making family. On the same day that director Jacques Tourneur’s second film for producer Val Lewton opened in America - I walked with a Zombie - across the Atlantic in France his father Maurice released the equally dark and otherworldly La Main du Diable

Born in 1876, Maurice Tourneur was a former theatre actor who entered the film world as an assistant director for the Éclair company in 1911. Before the decade was over, he had shipped over to America’s east coast and soon took charge of his own silent features, for Éclair’s New Jersey offshoot and then the World Film Corporation, including crime drama Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915). By the early Twenties, Tourneur firmly believed that Hollywood was the centre of the industry. Having already taken American citizenship, he moved out there to establish himself further as director of The Christian. This tale of doomed love (starring Richard Dix, later to topline Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship) would be sadly imitated in life as Tourneur’s marriage collapsed soon afterwards. In 1928, his U.S. film career also hit the rocks; M-G-M sacked him from Mysterious Island over his painstaking commitment to the beauty of the shot. He was forced to return home to France and start again.

Between 1930 and his death in 1948, Tourneur made twenty feature films and two shorts. La Main du
Diable (known in English as The Devil’s Hand and Carnival of Sinners) starred Pierre Fresnay, an actor of note from Hitchcock’s first version of The Man who Knew Too Much (1934) and a lead role opposite Erich Von Stroheim in Jean Renoir’s famous war drama La Grande Illusion (1937). It’s an engrossing Faustian morality tale made with great stylistic touches warning against the dangerous seductiveness of easy unearned fame.

Fresnay plays Roland Brissot, a tormented man on a personal mission who appears one night at a hotel in a mountainous region of France, bringing terror and intrigue into the lives of the other guests who are stranded by an avalanche. He is missing his left hand and carries a little casket that he zealously guards. Frustrated at discovering that a cemetery he seeks is not nearby, he is further perturbed when two rifle shots are heard and police officers turn up, seeking a diminutive man in black matching his description bearing a coffin. Suddenly there is a blackout during which Brissot’s box is stolen. The locals’ suspicions about him prove greater even than his mounting stress until eventually he calms enough to give them a deserved explanation. He tell them the incredible story that led him there.

Tourneur gains solid performances from his cast, led by the harried Fresnay who we discover is a painter of large ego but small talent, dismissed by the cognoscenti as “the painter of perfume and vitamins”. His inciting relationship, that of gold-digging girlfriend   Irène, is finely portrayed by Josseline Gael, who he picks up one day as a sales girl in a glove shop. She becomes his model yet soon realises his potential can’t live up to her selfish dreams of reflected glory and leaves him. The café chef Mélisse (Noel Roquefort) overhears the break-up and offers Brissot an extraordinary solution, a talisman that will bestow on him the fulfilment of whatever skills, talent and success he can dream of - in return for just one penny. The talisman is a creepily mobile left hand nestled in a casket, and acts as a supernatural conduit channelling transformative power for its owner when it replaces his own. It’s a strange bargain indeed as Mélisse combines his outlandish claims with the most chilling of buyer beware warnings. The absurdly cheap price is because each owner is also cursed from the moment he takes it up (“Sell it before you die!”) and only by selling it at a lesser cost than he paid can the former possessor be saved eternal damnation in Hell. As with all Faust propositions, in his greed Brissot ignores the small print and buys the talisman, much to the elated relief of the chef (who doesn’t tell Brissot that since there is no smaller coin than a penny he won’t be able to sell it on himself). Mélisse doesn’t get away scot free though - at the moment the deal is sealed, his left hand is reduced to a stump.

Over the next year, as predicted Brissot’s occult handiwork turns him from scorned failure into the critics’ darling. A revealing scene at his latest exhibition illustrates the motto of success having many fathers as exhibitor Gabelin (a fittingly self-satisfied Guillame de Sax) competes with Irène to hijack credit for Brissot’s success for themselves. The artist has other concerns. The ideas behind his disembodied work are a mystery to him, as is the hand signing each canvas enigmatically as ‘Maximum Leo’. What bothers him more is an odd little man who follows him around with a seeming knowingness, taunting him with an In Memoriam wreath commemorating for his new pseudonym.

All becomes dreadfully clear when they meet. The bowler-hatted civil servant hides the far more sinister identity of the Devil (a mischievous turn by the actor Palau - Pierre Palau del Vitri). His benign twinkling exterior is reminiscent of Walter Huston’s Scratch in the similar The Devil and Daniel Webster (reviewed here) yet here is even more wicked in true intent. ‘Le petit homme’, as he is credited, starts a fiendish clock ticking by telling Brissot that from now on, if he wishes to save his soul from Hell’s claim, he can buy it back but every day’s delay doubles the debt. This would be easy were it not for Brissot’s equal desire to buy the continued affections of the fair weather Irène.

This plot development in Jean-Paul Le Chanois’s script is a gripping and fresh take on the classic Faustian bargain, trapping Brissot in a nightmare escalation of self-induced business debt that the 1990s real world would ride with sweaty-palmed vicariousness alongside Rogue Trader’s Nick Leeson. Twenty-three days into the interest agreement, Brissot feverishly scrambles to put together enough buyout funds on a Saturday night when the figure is already over two hundred thousand francs. Seeing he is just eight francs short, the cruel little Devil spins the clock beyond midnight to double the debt further.  By the time he owes over six million, Brissot is so frantic that he takes the advice of Angel, a man who’d shouted “Don’t buy it” in vain back when he bought the hand, to turn his gifted hand to the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo. However, that rascally Devil is on to him and cools Brissot’s winning streak by simply showing up.

As with his son’s films under the literate humanitarianism of Val Lewton, Tourneur adds a vital moral guide post in Brissot’s darkest hour of despair: a kindly croupier at the casino who arranges a ride home for him. When asked why he wastes sympathy on such a foolish customer, the self-piteous Brissot is told “All men support each other like the links of a chain. When a link breaks, it breaks the next one”.

This crucial bond of care (albeit enlightened self-interest) is then illustrated to greatest effect in La Main du Diable’s most memorably macabre sequence, a ghostly counsel composed of the chain of men united by ownership of the accursed talisman. They convene to help Brissot, and ultimately their eternal selves. Each man recounts their shared experience of his supernatural gain followed by a sickening fall from grace requiring the desperate selling on of the hand.  They are in turn a King’s musketeer, a pickpocket-forger, a juggler, illusionist, surgeon, a boxer and finally Mélisse the chef. Tourneur’s montage of their lives is a mini-masterpiece, using Expressionist backdrops, silhouettes and shadows to visually depict the encroaching terror of consequences (e.g. the sloping wall and door of the pickpocket’s cell, and the long clawed arm overhanging the fateful deal between Mélisse and Brissot). Painstaking detail like this for such brief screen time may well have cost Tourneur his Hollywood career, but the thrilling mindscape he creates here was to French cinema and future horror audiences’ benefit.

Finally, the men are visited by the saintly soul who unwittingly gave his name and extremity to the awful chain of events. Against a holy sunburst background comes the spectral form of a fifteenth-century monk, the real Maximus Leo, who shunned using his many God-given talents in favour of the secluded hermit life. Seeing the bargaining potential literally at hand, the Devil cut it from him. Now the benevolent Maximus has returned to save their souls. One by one, symbolically chanting “Rest in peace”, the men pass the talisman casket down the bloodline that links them - until it stops with Brissot. He must fulfil its last resting place at the cemetery that holds the monk’s tomb in the mountains where our story began.

Brissot runs from the hotel and finds the graveyard after all. As the locals watch from the distance, he engages in mortal combat with his little nemesis. By the time they reach him, though he has died of a bludgeoned skull, the casket has vanished, reunited once more with Maximus Leo’s coffin and ending the curse’s deadly temptation.

La Main du Diable is an excellent combination of suspense thriller, chills and religious mysticism that charitably redeems us for our weaknesses and the reputation of a distinctive film director.