Friday, 29 September 2017

GILDERSLEEVE'S GHOST (1944)

From 1941 to 1958 NBC began broadcasting the long-running radio sitcom The Great Gildersleeve starring Harold Peary as blustery nincompoop Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (the ‘P’ stood for ‘Philharmonic’). A confirmed bachelor, he looks after his deceased brother–in-law’s estate along with orphaned nephew and niece Leroy and Marjorie, aided by his indispendable black cook Birdie (Lillian Randolph) and local druggist pal Mr Peavey (Richard LeGrand). A year into its run, RKO Radio Pictures felt there was enough potential in the characters and possible comedic scrapes to transpose the show and most of its original cast into B-movies - the first radio show ever to make the transition to cinema. The fourth and final in a short-lived series from 1942-1944 was Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944).

One can appreciate how Gildersleeve was a hit in a purely audio format just from its principals’ voices: Peary’s rich, flexible baritone pleasingly switches between pompous boasts and panicky wheedling, often ending in a wonderfully devious snicker that may well have influenced Scooby Doo’s conniving hero. And on the subject of cartoon canines, Legrand’s lugubrious Peavey is such a wonderfully dismal drip by contrast - with his buzzkill of a catchphrase “I wouldn’t say that” - that he could easily have been a vocal inspiration for M-G-M’s uncannily similar hound Droopy who first appeared in the short Dumb-Hounded two years into Gildersleeve’s radio run.

The problem with the film translation, on the evidence of Gildersleeve’s Ghost, is that it’s simply not funny and saddled with a lame, over-used horror plot. While Peary fans might enjoy seeing him opening the film doubling as his colourful ghostly ancestors, fulsome bearded Victorian Randolph and straw-boatered Twenties gent Jonathan, he and airwaves associate LeGrand aren’t enough to hold a rickety vehicle together.

To pad out the material to feature length, writer Robert E. Kent adds the old staple of a mad scientist, Dr Wells, trialling an invisibility pill upon a luckless caged gorilla. Of mild interest at least is an ape connection between the two actors: Frank Reicher (Wells) also played the naval Captain in both King Kong and Son of Kong (1933), while Charles Gemora had a lucrative sideline for three decades inhabiting the gorilla suit between make-up artist bookings. He dedicated himself to perfecting the craft of realistic ape behaviour and worked with comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Laurel and Hardy (memorably in 1938’s Swiss Miss).

To add thickness if not flavour to the plot, elements of the Invisible Man franchise are vainly drafted in so Dr Wells can blackmail his experimental vanishing victim, brash dame Terry (Marion Martin), into getting rid of the snooping Gildersleeve. Her ardour is not welcomed by our zero of a hero who is trying to solve the puzzle of the roaming ape in order to boost his campaign for Police Commissioner. This overriding motive has the merit of allowing us to see Peary’s oily operator in action at the start when he makes a stump speech in the neighbourhood: “Every woman knows that I've been the perfect gentleman in all... um, almost every woman knows that I've been... um... and in conclusion...” he waffles.

Terry also struggles to influence Chauncey, incumbent Commissioner Haley’s Chauffeur, a plot device that renders the second half of the movie ruinously tiresome. It isn’t the fault of actor Nick ( Nicodemus) Stuart as he is forced to embody another of those black comic relief stereotypes of wide-eyed, idiotic cowardice; but director Gordon Douglas has him roped into repeated pantomime ‘look-behind-you’ business involving the gorilla and a reliance upon sub-Lou Costello breathless wheezing to signify terror. Coupled with Stuart’s unvarying high-pitched yodel delivery, it soon grates on the nerves. Fortunately in later life Stuart would find a greater vehicle for his voice talent as Disney’s Br’er Bear in Song of the South (1946), and nobler standing as both founder of the Ebony Showcase Theater and an early inductee to the Archive of American Television for his TV work in Amos ‘n Andy.

Overall, dignity is as intermittently visible as the brassy Terry in the dispiriting Gildersleeve’s Ghost - though a closing mention should go to four-time Oscar nominee Vernon L. Walker for his excellent effects work on her moving champagne glass and floating cigarette illusion. 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944)

After the (dying) swan song of 1944’s Return of the Ape Man, Bela Lugosi was freed from the shackles of his ‘Monogram Nine’ contract to hopefully gain better results despite the lack of dubious security in his status. His first freelance venture was as support in Paramount’s B-picture division Pine Thomas Productions in One Body Too Many released in November of that year. This was a passable B-movie based on that old creepy warhorse begun with The Cat and the Canary (1927) of murder shenanigans based around the terms of a contested will fought over by potential beneficiaries who are forced to stay together in the deceased’s house.

Although it boasts nary an original bone, the film is amiable enough as Poverty Row western churner Frank McDonald ensures all his cast aim for a uniformly mischievous black comedy tone. Co-writer Maxwell Shane’s credits included 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand while his partner Winston Miller had a higher pedigree, having worked on the screenplay for M-G-M’s Gone with the Wind.

Aside from that classic, 1939 produced many others that gave it a claim to the greatest ever year of Hollywood film, none more so that The Wizard of Oz. This immortal Christmas favourite gave a breakout role to vaudevillian and radio light comedian Jack Haley as the Tin Man when Buddy Ebsen was forced to vacate the role due to an allergic reaction to the dust from the iconic shiny aluminium make-up. The part shot Haley to stardom and he parlayed his new fame on screen into a Paramount contract that included One Body Too Many. Haley is the energy centre of the movie as innocent, wise-cracking insurance salesman Albert Tuttle, a likeable coward who nervously cracks wise – reminiscent of Bob Hope.

Haley arrives at a mansion intending to sell a policy to head of the household Cyrus J. Rutherford.
Unbeknownst to him Rutherford has died, leaving a will that just been read to a gathering of his relatives; he conceals their inheritances, forcing them to lodge here while a glass-topped coffin is built for his body to posthumously view the stars from above ground. One amusing aspect is the list of criticisms the old curmudgeon bestows from the grave to each of them in turn - (e.g. “Margo wears too much make-up”) – highlighting the shadiness and greed among them. The only one who is above such approach is his niece Carol Dunlap, a third release that month for actress Jean Parker alongside Bluebeard and Dead Man’s Eyes. No wonder she escapes censure – it’s hard to hit a constantly moving target.

The potential dodginess of Rutherford’s attorney Morton Gellman is alluded to by Rutherford trusting him as far as he could throw him, but also the dead giveaway of his caddish moustache, an actor’s trademark for Bernard Nedell.

Lugosi is peripherally in on the fun as the house’s not exactly faithful butler Merkil “who for twenty years padded the household bills”. This proves the mildest accusation against him as he’s in league with Matthews the maid (Blanche Yurka - Bianca from Cry of the Werewolf) in scheming to wipe out the entire clan, leaving them as sole inheritors. Although he has little to do his grave tones contrast well with the lily-livered excitement around him. There’s also an amusing running gag where he continually persists in trying to induce everyone to drink his rat-poisoned coffee.

Tuttle and Carol join flirtatious forces while an evil familial threesome plan to bury Rutherford’s corpse underground, thus forcing a conditional reversal of the designated sums awaiting the planned inheritors. The plot falls back on the clichés exhausted from the many variants of this story set-up (sliding wall panels, unidentified sinister looming over our hero in bed etc) yet are played with verve and gentle wit. The playful feel is aided by Alexander Laszlo’s cheeky score, the kind that telegraphs comic spot effects with a duck whistle. He would go on to compose for such lurid titles like 1959’s Attack of the Giant Leeches and Beast from Haunted Cave.

The best line in the film belongs to Lugosi, offering to dispose of Tuttle with the cool indispensability
of Jeeves: “Shall I take him out sir and push him off the ledge?” he offers Gellman. “You can say it was an accident”.


After a rushed climax involving our faint-hearted hero hanging perilously from the observatory courtesy of the treacherous Henry (Singin’ in the Rain’s Douglas Fowley), it only remains for Carol to benefit from the will having also acquired Tuttle as her new boyfriend. Merkil and Matthews, somehow secure in their retainership, celebrate by even more inexplicably drinking their own coffee!

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

BLUEBEARD (1944)

Horror-tinged fairy and folk tales for children are as much a part of our culture as those geared to adult audiences. The nightmarish monster imagery featuring in many serve as life lessons for the young, such as in Red Riding-Hood with its implicit warning never to go into the woods alone or talk to strangers no matter how friendly they may appear under their wolfish exterior. A particularly ghoulish example is the French fairy story of Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard in English), the most popular version of which was by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault (1628-1703) was also the renowned creator of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), La Belle au bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty) and Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), later greatly influencing the Brothers Grimm.

The title character is a rich but supremely ugly man who is even more off-putting due to his blue beard and a suspicious background of having been married several times to women who mysteriously disappeared. He manages to woo a beautiful local girl who sees past these points and becomes his wife. Bluebeard places temptation in his young wife’s way when he goes off on a business trip, giving her free reign everywhere except one room she is expressly forbidden to enter. Inevitably she cannot resist her curiosity and discovers to her horror that it conceals the bodies of the previous Mrs Bluebeards. He returns home early and confronts her, but fortunately her two brothers ride to the rescue before he can exact a terrible punishment upon her.

The moral to impressionable readers is clear, yet the grisly concealment of his past by the sinister Bluebeard inspired producers to develop theatrical and film versions of the legend. George Méliès was the first with Bluebeard in 1902, followed by two versions played as romantic comedies - Bluebeard’s 8th Wife (1923) starring Gloria Swanson and its remake starring Claudette Colbert in 1938.

The first screen treatment to accentuate the horror angle was from Poverty Row studio PRC in 1944. Bluebeard starred John Carradine, and whilst keeping a French setting, specifically nineteenth-century Paris, focuses less on his pursuit of a bride and more on concealment of his homicidal compulsions interwoven with an artistic expression. He plays puppeteer Gaston Morel whose has a lucrative side-line painting critically-acclaimed portraits. Meanwhile the city is in the grip of a Ripper-style wave of serial killings targeting attractive young ladies and disposing of their bodies in the Seine.

Morel is introduced to the lovely Lucille (Jean Parker, who Laurel and Hardy fans may recognise from 1939’s Zenobia and The Flying Deuces) who agrees to design costumes for his puppets. This sets off the jealousy of his lover Renee with whom he performs his shows. Renee was a brooding first role for Sonia Sorel who would end her career in the dark relationship comedy Harold and Maude (1971). Here her part ends post-strangulation in the river after she asks awkward questions about his previous muses.

From the early scenes it soon becomes clear that Bluebeard is a cut above the usual quality of releases from this type of studio. PRC had recently bought and kitted out the Fine Arts studio complex with new equipment and announced ambitious projects to follow. Their opening salvo would be Bluebeard (in effect beating Chaplin to the copyrighted title he wanted to use for his own movie based on the similar French literal ladykiller Henri Landru – eventually titled Monsieur Verdoux in 1947). Director Edgar G. Ulmer began as a set designer on Expressionist classics like The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927) before helming horror pictures such as 1934’s The Black Cat and he capably directs a cast of above-average actors for the territory, augmented by decent production values spent on sets and costumes.  Carradine smoothly glides through his machinations, albeit given to some eye-popping excesses when attempting a Lugosi-like hypnotic stare upon his victims.

As Morel’s other puppeteer and henchman Le Soldat, Emmett Lynn has a moustached, soiled seediness of character. Nils Asther’s Inspector Lefevre is the Sûreté’s suave and relaxed pipe man, reminiscent of Charles Boyer rather than the typical cardboard stock players normally found on Poverty Row. Though he was Danish in real life, he oozes a credible Gallic charm to virtually woo his lady interviewees into full compliance. Asther was a fallen star from the glamorous heights of silent movie romantic leads in the late Twenties, when he’d squired the likes of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo on screen, through a ruinous blacklisting after he broke a studio contract in 1934. His career never recovered momentum and sadly PRC’s gain was to showcase him on the way down to finishing the decade as a truck driver.

Another flavourful interpretation is that of Ludwig Stössel as Morel’s crafty, pointy-bearded art dealer Jean Lamarte, the weak link in his set-up who is open to bribery.  Morel also slips up when he noticeably loses the cravat with which he garrottes Lucille’s sister Francine (Return of the Ape Man’s Teala Loring) - one of the police’s best undercover agents. Lucille had previously repaired it for him and knows it is the infamous Bluebeard’s modus operandi.

The threads of Morel’s entire life now begin to unravel. Even when faced with his lame excuse as to where the cravat went, in time-honoured tradition Lucille desperately tries to reconcile her love for him with the overwhelming evidence against him – until Morel confesses all. He had been a starving Beaux Arts student of nondescript promise till an ill woman he brought home inspired his Royal Academy award-winning canvas as the Maid of Orleans. From then on, the even sicker Morel made a twisted connection between artistic triumph and requisite agonies suffered by his sitting model.

“Now do you understand?” he raves at Lucille. Only too well. More perversely still, the maniac sincerely believes his back story need be no hindrance to their happy future although “Anyone seeking to destroy our happiness is a menace – a menace who will have to be done away with”. Disproving the maxim that honesty is the best policy, Lucille understandably disagrees about their prospects together and, as in the fairy-tale, is saved from a garrotting herself in the nick of time by Lefevre and his men.


Tom Weaver’s invaluable Poverty Row Horrors quotes director Ulmer from a 1970 interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which he recalls his stint (admired as “the Capra of PRC”) with some ambivalence, summing it up as “ I drifted into PRC and couldn’t get out”. In comparison with other horror movies from that slender neck of the woods, Bluebeard at least shows what talent can achieve during a period of slumming.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM (1944)

The haunted house became a trusty setting for a mixture of horror and comedy for Forties war-time audiences. It offered a ready-made opportunity for disparate groups of people to be brought together and challenged by a spooky mansion’s mythology - in particular those who could gain mileage from an amusingly cowardly persona such as Bob Hope (The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers) or Abbott and Costello (Hold That Ghost). There was also an excuse to shoehorn in musical performances by way of entertaining the guests and calming each other’s fears. In December 1944 Universal released the B-movie Murder in the Blue Room which contained both in a genial, fast-moving piece of candy-floss.

Script-wise, it’s of passing Hollywood history interest as the first screenplay co-credited to I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder’s famous partner in crafting such comedy classics as Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). The other notable facet was the fresh coat of paint applied by making the laughter providers a female-centric team. Originally Blue Room was intended as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, Fox’s former resident trio of knockabout gagmeisters (rivalling Columbia’s Three Stooges) who left for Universal after complaining about the shoddiness of The Gorilla (reviewed here). The studio plugged them into a series of musical comedies until they disbanded as a threesome in 1943.

Blue Room was then remodelled to showcase three spirited and talented song-and-dance actresses to form the plot’s nightclub act The Three Jazzybelles, a close-harmony trio clearly inspired by the successful Andrews Sisters who had already co-starred with the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. The team of Grace McDonald, Betty Kean and June Preisser blend together so convincingly that it’s a surprise to find they were entirely separate performers in real life. Cute diminutive blond Preisser made her name as a love rival to Judy Garland for Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike up the Band (1940). McDonald, the gals’ sensible brunette leader, started out as a brother-sister tap team before landing a series of B-picture musicals with Paramount that slotted her into films designed for the Andrews sisters. Tall, kooky redhead Betty Kean began as one half of a duo with her sister Jane; her madcap rangy physicality recalls the ‘loose-limbed lunacy’ ascribed to the 
young Jonathan Miller.

The basic plot is a straightforward piece of frippery concerning a high-society family whose palatial home conceals a macabre Blue Room in which the patriarch died under mysterious circumstances twenty years ago. Since then no-one has been allowed in, until two men vying for the hand of the eligible Nan (Weird Woman and House of Frankenstein‘s beautiful Anne Gwynne) compete to impress her with their bravery by each volunteering to spend a night there – with fatal consequences. The Jazzybelles ladies are brought in as old fellow performer friends of Nan’s to perform for the gathering and soon become embroiled on suspicion of murder.

As opposing suitors Larry and mystery writer Steve the duelling pair of Bill Williams and Donald Cook are fairly interchangeable stock players, whose disappearance/murders are less engaging than the byplay between the Jazzybelles. After Nan gets an opening solo, the girls then eclipse everyone with their sassy blue-collar “Gee, that’s swell” attitudes and three musical numbers that showcase their excellent vocal and tap chops. They also get the lion’s share of the comedy with the kind of rim-shot vaudeville shtick that rattles along agreeably enough:

“I came for the bags”
“He’s not only gruesome – he’s insulting”.

That sequence is part of a brief Chauffeur cameo by Milton Parsons, the busy, bald-headed eccentric specialist we glimsped earlier as the Funeral Director in Cry of the Werewolf.
As guests unknown to most of the party, the Jazzybelles are chief suspects targeted by Regis Toomey’s Inspector McDonald, one of those fedora-wearing cops hard-boiled enough to resemble Warner Brothers’ gangsters (another of which he’d play in that studio’s classic The Big Sleep a year later). They also fall foul of butler Edwards played by the enormously prolific Ian Wolfe whose credits spanned from the Thirties right up to 1990’s Dick Tracy, working until his death at age 95). He gets in a memorably game burst of showbiz sparring with the gals:

“My mother warned me against people like you. She said acting is the devil’s profession”
“Are you saying actors are bad?”
“In yours case, decidedly yes”.

The negligible chills in the film are really just for fun, courtesy of a self-playing piano during McDonald and Preisser’s bravura tap set-piece, a clichéd pantomime-style hand taunting the girls in bed and an inexplicable but funny turn by Robert Cherry as an actual ghost complete with transparent bed-sheet body topped with a white derby. His two appearances make no sense but are thrown in as part of the breezy devil-may-care tone.

The brisk 60-minute running time ensures that such daffy developments and any lame gags are never dwelt on, meaning that Murder in the Blue Room doesn’t outstay its welcome on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 22 September 2017

DEAD MAN'S EYES (1944)

Dead Man's Eyes (1944) was the third of Universal’s Inner Sanctum mystery supporting features starring Lon Chaney Jr. In casting one of its horror stars and sometimes straying tangentially into darker material, the series earns a mention in horror reviews. After that year’s Weird Woman (see earlier review), the next in line was a bit of a marketing red-herring. The title promises one of those lurid, by-now familiar genre plots concerning donor organs transmitting their owner’s homicidal impulses into a new host. The actual story is much more a crime whodunnit where the results of the grafting matter less than the love triangle and murder sleuthery. If you think that’s disappointing, you haven’t seen the woeful performances under the hack direction of Reginald LeBorg whose work we’ve already endured in the previous film plus Jungle Woman and The Mummy’s Ghost (also 1944).

Chaney plays struggling painter Dave Stuart - on paper a suitable role suggesting the kind of tortured soul possibilities that he was known for, particularly as the cursed Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man franchise. Initially, he’s a happy man with marriage to the lovely Heather Hayden (Jean Parker) and her wealthy family to look forward to, while looking on with smouldering jealousy is his dark-eyed model Tanya (Acquanetta). In the early calm-before-the-storm scenes, as in other films Chaney always looks unconvincing when called upon to convey the relaxed demeanour of the light leading man. We know though that he is biding his time until he can get stuck into some no-doubt masochistic heavy lifting.

There is no such relief for (or from) Acquanetta however who is utterly wooden throughout the entire picture.  We’ve already experienced her as the titular Captive Wild Woman and Jungle Woman in which the studio tried to project a raw, native islander image for the real life Mildred Davenport of Wyoming. In those films her lack of talent squeaked by, passed off as a hypnotised other-worldly exoticism. Here in a modern-dress role she is more exposed than in a jungle loin-cloth, her character’s profession only being apt since it would allow her long periods of inexpressiveness.

Fortunately it isn’t long before Chaney’s awkward bliss crash-dives into screaming reality when he accidentally bathes his tired eyes with acetic acid instead of eyewash, resulting in crippling blindness. Dr Wells (the Blondie series’ Jonathan Hale) warns that “His mental state will not be good for a while” – tragically good news for horror fans.

Less welcome is the opportunity the plot complexities keep providing for Acquanetta to demonstrate sub-zero emotional temperature. Tanya feels guilty, if you can tell, confessing to Dave’s prospective father-in-law Daddy Hayden (Edward Fielding) that she may have mistakenly placed the wrong bottle near Dave. “You must believe me”, she pleads drearily. Hayden rounds on her, matching her mahogany dressing-table with a fitted wardrobe of his own bad acting. “You…you…“, he emotes, waiting for an interruption that awkwardly never arrives. 

Tanya then positions herself as Dave’s nurse. Was this a scheme of hers all along? It’s impossible to say as she’s unable to telegraph any subtlety of nuance.

In that respect so is the screenplay, the first by LeBorg collaborator Dwight V Babcock who went on to supply either full scripts for a multitude of low-grade horror films or storylines (e.g. Rondo Hatton 1946 ‘Creeper’ vehicles House of Horrors and The Brute Man). His dialogue works on fewer levels than a broken elevator, sabotaging even those of the supporting cast who are semi-decent, forcing them to simply state their innermost thoughts in clunking exposition. When Daddy Hayden is found dead after offering to donate Dave his corneas post-mortem, Dave, who is found by Helen at the scene, becomes chief suspect. This prompts Thomas Gomez (blustery Count Seebruck in The Climax), who fancies himself the amateur shrink, to aim his portly Capt. Drury at psychiatrist Alan Bittaker scoping for motivational insights. “Blindness is a serious thing to happen to an artist” he observes, proving he shouldn’t give up the cop day job just yet.

By sheer coincidence, Paul Kelly who plays Bittaker was in real life convicted of manslaughter himself in 1927 after the involuntarily fatal beating he gave to lover Dorothy Mackaye’s abusive ex-husband Ray Raymond. He was paroled in 1927 and rebuilt his life and career leading to a Tony Award (a tie with Basil Rathbone and Henry Fonda) for Broadway’s 1947-8 season in Command Decision.

Regular readers of my column will know of my fondness for studying horror movie newspaper front pages and Babcock’s screenplay hits us with such unsubtle gems as ‘BLIND MURDER SUSPECT TO RECEIVE DEAD MAN’S EYES’ for those who were out getting alcohol or sedatives when this plot information was already clearly given. For added amusement, to the right of the aforementioned header is a nostalgia piece about a boxer titled ‘LOOKS BACK TO GOOD OLD DAYS’, the kind of unintentional pun that has me always freeze-framing these covers when they appear.

With films as bad as this you must find your entertainment value where you can because there’s very little that’s deliberate. After Tanya is mercifully silenced by a shadowy figure, Drury remarks a priceless tribute upon admiring Dave’s portrait: “That’s a great painting of her. Captures her warmth and her passion”. Since nether quality was evident in the sitter’s performance, it’s only fitting that it actually looks like someone else.

Dead Man’s Eyes could have redeemed itself if reworked as a full-blooded B-movie horror vehicle in which the eye graft possessed the power to plague Chaney with visions of, let’s say, real guilt for example, or if he was the beneficiary of a killer’s peepers as the grisly covert experiment of a mad scientist (Karloff, Lugosi or if wet, George Zucco). Instead, we are treated to am-dram theatrics of Alan being in love with Tanya and Heather propositioned by lounge-lizard Nick, who dissolves later into the seemingly incriminating gibber: “You’re all against me!” By the time we discover Dave concealed the success of his eyesight restoration to catch the real killer, I was longing for some unrestrained nuttiness to liven up the soap-opera.

Despite the solved mystery, when it comes to quality film-making the team behind Dead Man’s Eyes haven’t a clue.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

THE PEARL OF DEATH (1944)

By the time producer-director Roy William Neill embarked on the ninth of Universal’s popular Sherlock Holmes B-movie series, the formula was well established: high-grade sleuthing, comic relief and the occasional frisson of chills enough to earn the cross-over for a few sequels into horror territory. The Pearl of Death, based loosely on Conan-Doyle’s short story The Six Napoleons, was no exception. It’s amiable enough but is chiefly only of interest due to an introductory cameo for the intriguing and tragically short-lived actor Rondo Hatton.

Before we get to him, the main story concerns a series of apparently unconnected murders across London whereby the victims are found with broken backs and surrounded by a litter of smashed crockery – a perfect case for Basil Rathbone’s master sleuth and his faithful sidekick Nigel Bruce. Meanwhile the focus of attention is upon the missing Borgia Pearl, an infamous trinket leaving a trail of death in its wake “with the blood of twenty men upon it down through the centuries”. Such is the pearl’s value that out of the woodwork comes the notorious criminal Giles Conover (a suitably caddish Miles Mander) whose own reputation for being behind seemingly every unsolved crime in the nation precedes him. Conover is assisted by beautiful genre regular Evelyn Ankers who had already graced the series in 1942’s The Voice of Terror as well as appearing in the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, Dracula and the Invisible Man fright franchises for the studio (racking up seventeen credits between 1943 – 44 alone).

Along for the ride as usual is Dennis Hoey’s bumbling egotist Inspector Lestrade. He and Bruce are responsible for the comedic touches while Holmes feels responsible for the inciting theft of the pearl after he cuts the wiring in the Royal Regent Museum’s lax security system, leaving it exposed for Conover to nab it. The film then becomes an engaging battle between Holmes and his nemesis, both of whom are masters of disguise and don a number of them in order to outwit the other repeatedly across the city in hot pursuit of the deadly jewel.

There’s always time though in Bertrand Millhauser’s screenplay (his third for them) to remind us of the close relationship between the great detective and his loyal friend: “My dear Watson, I really must caution you against hitting reporters in the teeth”, advises Holmes genially.

Throughout the movie, as London’s finest exponent of deductive reasoning tries to glean the
connection between the mounting, apparently motiveless killings, we are drip-fed advance word of Conover’s fear-inducing henchman known as the Hoxton Creeper. “’Oxton ‘orror, I call ‘im”, mutters Lestrade helpfully. We are given a couple of teasing, shadow-obscured shots of this figure until in the climactic skirmish there is the first horror film full close-up of him played by Rondo Hatton. Once seen, Hatton is never forgotten and one must be sensitive to his unsightly facial physiognomy as this was sadly no feat of any make-up artist’s work.

In his youth Hatton was a regular Joe high-school American, born in Maryland in 1912 before moving with his family to Florida. By all accounts he was a popular and attractive athlete before enlisting in the Forces (his Hillsborough High School yearbook photo bears this out). This became a fateful career move as his service in France during WWI saw him exposed like many soldiers to the hideous effects of poison gas in the trenches. Hatton spent some time post-war as a newspaper reporter before moving to Hollywood in 1936. By then he had gradually fallen victim to the devastating physical effects of acromegaly, a condition that causes grotesque enlargement of the bone structure across the head, hands and feet. Whilst this was attributed to the gas attacks, it can also be triggered by a pituitary gland disease that usually occurs only after the subject reaches full adult age, thus roughly coinciding with the timeline of his war injury. In his case it lengthened Hatton’s facial structure and gave him the kind of bulbous nose and excessively fleshy lips that could be confused with a life in the boxing ring as well as filling out his form across the shoulders and extremities.

Hatton’s unfortunate disfigurement appears to have been present years before his reporting spell as his unique look was spotted and co-opted by director Henry King to play a Dance Hall Bouncer in Hell Harbor (1930) shot in Hatton’s native Florida. A number of cameos followed until he struck a sort of gold with The Pearl of Death. After Universal quickly slotted him into The Jungle Captive and as ‘Mario the Monster Man’ in (Sherlock Holmes spin-off) The Spider Woman Strikes Back, they realised they could shorten his Pearl of Death nickname to ‘The Creeper’ thus capitalising on his emerging marquee value in a short burst of films built around him. The studio’s bosses were no slouches when it came to sensing a marketing opportunity regardless of insensitivity – remember that they reduced Boris Karloff to just a marketable surname when he achieved his first flush of horror fame with 1931’s Frankenstein, and later would insist on removing the ‘junior’ from Lon Chaney’s son so he could be slyly positioned as a direct replacement for his father.

Despite Hatton’s unsettling look, “He was a pleasure to work with - intelligent, sensitive and kind” recalled Jean Yarborough who directed him in the brace of 1946 horror movies House of Horrors and The Brute Man that the actor managed before his untimely death from a heart attack that year.

Although these movies might be argued as a form of exploitative employment tantamount to a modern-day carnival freak show, they provided Rondo Hatton with a living and a type of fame in the genre that has outlived him more so than many actors. Aside from frequent name-checking in horror-related material over the decades, his name was posthumously given to the industry’s Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards which since 2002 have honoured ‘the best in classic horror research, creativity and film preservation’.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

THE CLIMAX (1944)

When Boris Karloff reported back at Universal to begin filming The Climax in February 1944, it was his first film in any genre for two years. He was fresh from his enormous success touring America with the stage show of Arsenic and Old Lace for roughly three years which proved highly lucrative for him and gave theatre audiences the chance to see more of the comedic skills hinted at in his last movie, 1942’s The Boogie Man Will Get You - which we’ve already discussed.

The Climax was originally intended as a direct sequel to the studio’s hit remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), a ravishingly beautiful and rare Technicolor reworking of their 1925 original. Mixed reviews had criticised Universal for watering-down the famously Grand Guignol tone in favour of turning it into a musical operetta to gain the maximum return on their investment. Even so, it was enough of a commercial success to warrant the studio going after Nelson Eddy, Claude Rains and Susanna Foster to secure their return for a proposed follow-up. However, negotiations only secured Foster’s reprise of her role, so the material was retooled under the guise of an adaptation of a play by Edward Locke.

The director was George The Wolf Man Waggner who enlisted his collaborator in werewolf matters Kurt Siodmak to handle the new script. Like its predecessor, The Climax is gorgeous to look at; the sets, recycled from both the previous iterations, along with the costumes retain the sumptuous gloss of the 1943 version. Less favourably it also recaptures the controversial operetta model, which is not everyone’s cup of tea (including this reviewer), and despite some aspects of Locke’s play reminds us so much of Gaston LeRoux’s basic source plot that it might as well be another Phantom remake.

At least Karloff fans get to see the horror maestro back to playing type and in stunning full colour. He
plays Dr Friedrich Hohner, nineteenth-century house physician to the performers of Vienna’s Royal Theatre. We learn immediately that in his own way he haunts the theatre with the same homicidal possessiveness as Rains’ Man in the Mask. A flashback details how ten years ago he throttled his beloved wife Marcelina (June Vincent) for the crime of allowing her talent to be enjoyed by the public instead of solely his private pleasure. “I only hate the thing that’s come between us – your voice”, he tells her with chilling understatement before his hands give her a terminal ovation.

The focus then shifts to the theatre’s current daily management issues, the largest of which is massaging the high-maintenance ego of established Prima Donna Mme. Jamila (Jane Farrar) who is threatened by the rise of superb ingénue Anne Klatt (Foster). Farrar and Foster essentially replay the same clear relationship dynamic they had in the 1943 Phantom as diva Biancarolli and Christine respectively. Surely a prettier surname for Anne could have been found, especially as the other characters pronounce it even more inelegantly as ‘Klott’. Blooper-spotters, when not being distracted by the chocolate box visuals, may also enjoy Thomas Gomez’s Count Seebruck breezing in with ‘The chestnut trees are in broom’ – a sweeping statement indeed. (Rewind to hear it like I did).

Much more palatable to listen to is the lavish and versatile music score reuniting the 1943 team of musical director Edward Ward and orchestrator Harold Zweifel. Vocal director William Tyroler rejoins them – his connection in fact going back even further to directing the 1925 opera orchestra. Incidentally, Waggner himself wrote the librettos for the operetta sequences that adorn or hamper the action according to one’s taste.

Another of the plus points of The Climax is the casting of Turhan Bey as young composer Franz
Munzer, giving him a main part worthy of his light leading man potential recently wasted upon lesser fare supporting roles such as in The Mummy’s Tomb and the Mad Ghoul (see reviews). Coincidentally Viennese by birth, the effortless suavity required fits him like an opera glove and makes him a worthy counterpoint of velvety tones to his rival Karloff.

There’s no need for us to remind ourselves of the further ways this film parallels the Phantom story. The points of departure (if not originality) are really those that are taken from Locke’s play, the evil protagonist of which uses hypnosis under the guise of medical treatment to control his female subject and a medicine that he commands her to take every day, thus robbing her of the gift she would otherwise share with the world. A subtle variation is that in the film Hohner feels an occult link to his dead wife, preserving her body in a white silk draped home chapel. He believes Anne’s voice belongs to her and by psychological sabotage it will be paranormally returned to Marcelina as its real owner, which doesn’t make much motivational sense since he was responsible for his wife’s talent being erased in the first place.  Furthermore, Locke allows Doctor Raymond in his play to ultimately feel remorse for his monstrous behaviour, a luxury not accorded the hell-bent Hohner of the movie.

There is a subtly macabre fun to be had in seeing Karloff’s pursuit of Anne and her “exquisite throat”
from first studying her in performance through his strictly non-medicinal grooming of her. Franz becomes gracefully frustrated to the point of kidnapping Anne with the aid of Gale Sondergaard, belying her usual genre territory as Hohner’s initially cold sentinel of a housekeeper Luise. She is revealed to having been playing the implausibly long game of working for Hohner all these years to gather enough evidence of his murdering Marcelina – I may have missed any personal connection she had justifying this if there was one. The atomiser medicine spray may be just what the doctor ordered but when examined by a chemist employed by Franz it is found to be nothing more than a lurid Technicolor green water. Even so, such is the doctor’s remote mental power over Anne that Franz even resorts to imploring the boy king (a precocious Scotty Beckett) to call for a command performance so she may get back on the horse and cure her psychosomatic condition on stage.

As Franz looks up from the prompt box, will our young song-bird have the courage to overcome her erstwhile captor’s mesmeric machinations? Sadly yes, resulting in the viewer being assaulted with finale attack-waves of high-pitched budgerigar trills that seriously grate on even this musical fan’s sensibilities. (In spite of the style, Foster’s voice itself is hugely impressive).

To balance the cloyingly twee, Karloff manages to bow out with a little masculine grit, setting fire to his chapel and going down slumped protectively over his self-maligned beloved. Now that’s a bedside manner.

The Climax did not turn out as profitably as Phantom on release. Perhaps copying what didn’t work in the 1943 musical as well as what did meant the revised concept pushed its luck a remake too far.

Monday, 18 September 2017

DAY OF WRATH (1943)

Carl Dreyer, known to horror fans for his striking 1932 horror Vampyr discussed on this site earlier, spent the next ten years out in the wilderness. The commercial failure of that film (only later reappraised a classic) after the same reception for La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1928) forced him back to his original profession of journalism. World War two proved to be a benefit to him rather than a hindrance as his native Danish film industry suddenly found itself needing internal product after 1940 when the Nazis’ military occupation of Denmark blocked the import of any foreign movies. He first had to endure the humiliation of having to prove himself all over again by making a short documentary for the war effort Mødrehjælpen (Good Mothers) in 1942 that dealt with a humanitarian organisation’s aid for unmarried mothers.

Maternal influence, for better or worse, would also feature within the family torn apart in the eventual full-length film he was allowed to make – Day of Wrath (1943). The screenplay, written by a team of five headed by Dreyer, came from Anne Pedersdotter (1909) a stage play also adapted into Respighi’s opera La Fiamma in 1934. For a man not inclined to religious belief in real life, Dreyer was immensely drawn to the work which deals with the oppressive public affirmation of their faith by a 1623 Puritan community while in private all manner of self-serving agendas are darkly carried out into inexorable tragedy.  

Modern viewers may find its themes and setting very familiar from Arthur Miller’s monumental 1953 stage play The Crucible. Miller’s play drew much of its devastating impact from using the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 as a metaphor to covertly attack the House Un-American Activities Committee that had turned his 1950s America into a society riddled with hypocritical tyranny and paranoia. Dreyer claimed that his film, also vividly centered around literal witch persecution, was innocent of a similar allegorical parallel with the monstrosity of 1940s Nazi genocide, but as the DVD’s BFI notes point out: “was persuaded by friends that it might be wiser to withdraw to Sweden for the duration of the war”.

Day of Wrath is deceptively simple on the surface, much like the Puritan sect it depicts. Aside from a few cameo appearances, the plot focuses on the machinations of five and then just four principal characters over the last two acts. This along with its deliberate slow pace focuses our attention on a deliberately claustrophobic building of tension. It’s a film that also continually presents us with clear contrasts. For example, for non-Danish viewers the natural inclination when not reading the subtitles is to glean impressions from the actors’ faces and in the physical casting Dreyer gives us a marked difference between presumed virtue and apparent evil. At the beginning, Anna Svirkier looks the very picture of a sweet, plump-faced Grandma as Herlof’s Marte, an elderly local lady targeted as a witch by the pinch-faced, cadaverous ascetics who condemn her. She seeks sanctuary with young Anne (Lisbeth Movin, whose career would span the years 1942 to 1987’s notable Babette’s Feast) who gives her up rather than protect her, and thus begins the slow-rolling momentum to doom.

Anne is the (possibly devilishly) pretty young second wife of Rev Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), the community Pastor. He may be a man of the cloth but he is a sinner, guilty of colluding in the past acquittal of Anne’s mother on witchcraft charges. There’s ample anecdotal gossip that she had the demonic ability to make people obey her, and judging by the flashing eyes of her daughter Anne may have inherited that Svengali-like power. This suggests itself in the way she gazes with secret lust on first meeting Martin, Absalon’s much more age-appropriate son. Unwittingly, the Pastor (finished by Martin) recites a poem foreshadowing the possible Eve-like temptation he’s brought home:

“A maiden sat in an apple tree/Reaching for an apple she could not see/
Beneath, a boy was taking a nap/She slipped and landed in his lap”

At this point, despite the low-simmering scheming that we can see in her, she is still the Parson’s wife, testing her allure. Other eyes boring into her with undisguised malice belong to Absalon’s mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), the archetypal battle-axe mother-in-law whose splendid glower of purse-lipped disapproval represents the affronted piety of the whole community at her son’s scandalous harlot of a wife.

The consequences of Herlof’s Marte’s capture leads us to unmistakably stark contrasts between the light and dark of good versus evil shown in the lighting by Swedish cinematographer Karl Andersson.  Bright white walls form a glaring backdrop against the shadows cast by black-clad interrogators busy stretching the poor old dear into committee-approved confessions of guilt on the rack: “A beautiful confession” - “She’s a hard one”.

Amidst this appalling cruelty Andersson creates masterful painterly images worthy of the Old Masters in how he composes groups of actors as well as dual character two-shot scenes, varying their respective heights in the frame to emphasise dramatic status. In counterpoint to this shadowy dungeon of torture, we are plunged into blazing sunshine to spy on the youthful optimism of Anne and Martin frolicking merrily through the idyllic cornfields as they begin an illicit courtship.

However, Dreyer’s films are frequently stereotyped as gloomily Scandinavian in outlook, much like Sweden’s celebrated Ingmar Bergman; an understandable label as no matter what dastardly deeds Day of Wrath’s protagonists do to privately better themselves, they know the fetid breath of the Grim Reaper is breathing down their necks. The picturesque adulterous romance of Martin and Anne is clouded over by the sight of the funeral pyre wood-cart and his guilt-racked musings, while back home Pastor Absalon is on his own self-imposed rack, not only for concealing incriminating evidence against Anne’s mother but ironically imprisoning Anne herself in a loveless marriage to his old fuddy-duddy self.

Not all of the action is confined to off-screen punishment or restrained brooding; while the scenes of desperate soul-searching are mainly played in a very measured, slow-burning pace for impact, one sequence sears itself with an explicit horror brand on the memory: the burning of Herlof’s Marte. Her screaming body, lashed to a wooden ladder, appears to topple face-first right into the heart of the pyre flames in full view of the audience - with no cut-away. (Allegedly Dreyer left Svierkier tied to the ladder while the crew broke for lunch so she’d be bathed in realistic visible sweat).

The language of the script adds a grisly literary barbarism to the on-screen writhings. The earlier salivating description of the old lady’s torturing is surpassed by the document recording her punishment: “On this day, which was exceedingly fine, Herlof’s Marte was burnt happily”.

Inevitably, as with modern politicians who boast of their commitment to pure old-fashioned values, the ostentatious barricades of self-righteousness piled up by our villagers intensify before inevitably crumbling to expose their greater sin. Anne is fully seduced by her dark side – marvelling at instead of judging her mother’s supposed occult gift – “To think that a human being can possess such power…” She even uses exactly the same words to plead for emotional support from her husband and step-son. After her treachery fatally stops Absalon’s heart, even the cornfields can no longer provide comfort, the sun-bathed crops now obscured in a sombre mist.

At last the threatened retribution that has bedevilled the living ever since Herlof’s Marte delivered her
pre-execution curse comes to pass. The rope drawing together the surviving threesome ever tighter finally settles as a noose around the dainty neck of Anne - the only positive being that she belatedly grows a conscience over the open casket of her husband.

Dreyer’s uncompromising style of film-making, his penchant for long-takes and an almost glacial pace of exposition meant that Day of Wrath didn’t gain recognition until it was seen by post-war international audiences.  His approach was never going to endear him to the box office or producers looking for a commercial hit, meaning that he only directed two more feature films, the critically-acclaimed Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) whose more alienating slowness than before repelled many reviewers.


He is an acquired taste, yet one that rewards undisturbed concentration to fully appreciate the absorbing atmosphere of his work, particularly in the field of psychological horror.

Friday, 15 September 2017

THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)

“When children are happy and lonely and good,
The friend of the children comes out of the wood…”

These lines from Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem Unseen Playmate neatly sum up the poignant premise behind Val Lewton’s sixth film as producer, Curse of the Cat People (1944), a sequel to his celebrated first hit Cat People (1942) Quoted in the film, they seek to understand the needs of the main character, a friendless child desperately seeking companionship. The original film concerned itself with the complexities of adult relationships straining under dark secrets of identity and expression. Here the focus is on an altogether more fragile and charming world, that of a six year-old girl who also yearns to be understood and nurtured, but by creatures of fantasy, while struggling with the well-meaning concern and scepticism of her solidly real-world parents. Fans of Lewton and the inciting film need not be put off; Curse is a beautiful and lyrical story that straddles the worlds of fantasy and reality whilst satisfyingly recalling and separating itself from its creator. Just don’t go expecting murderous claws and chaos.

It’s always worth stressing the enormous difference in quality between a Val Lewton movie experience and the expectations caused up-front by the lurid titles with which he was contractually saddled. Curse is no exception; Lewton tried to get RKO to let him call it Amy and her Friend which would have been truer to the central idea. As with all of his output it is a textbook example of how a caring, hands-on producer can truly benefit his films, investing them with remarkable autobiographical details and literary depth despite not being directly behind the camera. To helm Curse he gave his editor Robert Wise his first directing credit. Stories in The Hollywood Reporter claimed this was a rescue tactic after assigned director Gunther von Frisch (whose background was solely in short films) had used up all the allotted eighteen days of filming to shoot only half of the screenplay. Wise finished nine days over schedule having no choice but to push the budget from $147,000 to $212,000.

There is no rush-job taint about the finished film. From the beginning we are taken with loving care into the world of lonesome little Amy Reed from whom the film never lets slip its sympathy. One a school day-trip she is singled out bluntly by her classmates, and with greater sensitivity by her teacher, as “…A nice girl. Only a little different”.  She can only relate to non-human creatures such as butterflies, and when a boy interferes she slaps him, earning an interview between her teacher and parents.

This allows us our first recall to Cat People in the return of Kent Smith and Jane Randolph as mum and dad Oliver and Jane Reed. Smith seems to have got his life back on track with Jane after his first marriage to Simone Simon’s feline femme and yet something about Amy always reminds him of her: “Moody…sickly. She could almost be Irena’s child”. Another echo from the past is Elizabeth Russell whose Slavic (and possibly shape-changing) sob sister haunted Irena in a memorable cameo in the previous film, and now wafts enigmatically on the fringes here too. She stands guard as a coldly unhospitable resident of the spooky neighbourhood house from which the gift of a ring is thrown down to Amy by an unseen elderly lady.

Amy’s world seems a sullen gloomy mind-scape and young Ann Carter couples this with a sweet unprecocious charm. We can’t help but feel sorry for her when she scuppers her own birthday party after having posting the invites in the tree she still believes is magic in her garden. This was one of a number of real autobiographical memories of Lewton’s that he gifts to his protagonist to curry our sympathy. However, hers are the kind of idyllic childhood trappings set up to resemble a fairy-tale - she is raised in a beautiful home complete with the archetypal white picket fence and a picturesque garden by two doting and united parents. Curse contains many of the classic tropes of children’s fiction as we will see. The family are affluent enough to employ the kindly Jamaican housekeeper Edward played by Sir Lancelot (whom we last saw him gracing I Walked with a Zombie). He is not a contrived fantasy projection though - Lewton was continuing the admirable policy through all of his films of according all racial minorities the dignity and respect in their jobs and personalities that very few other Hollywood filmmakers were showing.

Fanciful Amy imagines her ring has magical properties and with heart-breaking vulnerability she asks
“I wish for a friend”. When she disobeys her folks to return this magical talisman to the creepy house again, her long blonde hair and white pinafore dress reminds us of the innocent yet headstrong heroine of Alice in Wonderland. If one needs more reminders of children’s story-book classics, how about a fairy Godmother and a Wicked Queen? The former comes courtesy of the elderly ring-bestower who introduces herself to Amy with flamboyant faux-horror as “Julia Farrow - a stranger?” (Julia Dean). Coiffeured and resplendent in pearls and jewellery, Farrow is a faded grand dame of the stage yet still capable of ripples of ripe theatricality. Wicked feminine villainy is unwillingly embodied by Elizabeth Russell whom we now understand is the old lady’s daughter Barbara, which is more than the old lady will acknowledge. (To Julia she is “A liar – an imposter!” - a poor substitute for the daughter she believes died at the same age as Amy). Spurned Barbara seethes with a private jealousy toward Amy as sharp as her exquisite cheekbones. One half-expects her to produce a poisoned apple for the cute little interloper.

Julia radiates the twinkly-eyed naughtiness of a vital plot facilitator in Amy’s growth, but with a definite strain of foreboding to be heeded along the way.  On her way in, the child had already spotted amongst her furniture a macabre stuffed cat ferociously swallowing down a whole bird. If that proves too subtle, the genteel old ham gives her a double dose of warnings from performed literature (her background a handy vessel for Lewton to quote the artistic influences that pervade his movies). To suggest paranormal influences edging closer, Julia quotes the titular killer king from Macbeth, Shakespeare’s most supernaturally-drenched play, after he fatally stabs his monarch: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst.” Even more powerfully she recites a Headless Horseman sequence from Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) featuring a bug-eyed exhortation to Amy that “You must ride…ride…ride!”

The vivid scaring of Amy becomes the catalyst for the first ethereal visitation to come to her in her bedroom. She is awoken by the ominous Headless Horseman’s hooves, an example of Francis M. Sarver and James G. Stewart’s effective sound work. Unlike in Cat People though, the sudden shadowy figure looming over her presages companionship not peril. It is the welcome re-entry of Simone Simon’s slinky feline Irena. “I’m glad you came...my friend” she says in delight. Cleverly, whenever Dewitt Bodeen’s screenplay signals one of Lewton’s trademark ‘Lewton bus’ jump-shocks, the potential is diffused rather than exploited, ever mindful of the impressionable young soul at the heart of this tale. (Later, when the same oppressive Horseman’s hooves threaten to bear down on her on the bridge, J. R. Whittredge’s editing times a truck arrival just late enough to miss startling the audience).

When the ghostly Irena joins Amy in the garden, she re-frames positively what could otherwise be
morbid: “You wouldn’t understand. I come from great darkness – and deep peace”. This also recalls the unorthodox embrace of the dark she had when alive in Cat People - “It’s friendly”. Indeed, Irena seems to symbolise an enchanting fairy princess for Amy; dressed in a flowing sash-bejewelled gown she is a perfect six year-old girl’s idea of such a fantasy friend.

Sadly, Irena cannot impact upon the adults’ lives despite singing a pretty song counterpointing the family’s Christmas party rendition of the tonally-apt ‘Shepherd, shake off your drowsy sleep’. She is for Amy’s eyes only, and this obsession eventually become an important wedge between her and her father when he punishes her for refusing to deny that she can see Irena. There’s a touching complexity to his actions that prevent us from blaming the poor guy – woven into Oliver’s desire to make his daughter grow up a little are the bittersweet memories of Irena that never quite let him move on. One of the most resonant scenes in the film is the lingering shot as he leads Amy up the staircase to spank her. Lewton’s maestro cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca casts a stark shadow of him against the wall to reinforce that a cruel condemnation of her private imagination is about to be delivered (off-screen, for extra awful power) by her most cherished protector. Despite the professionally-trained reasoning of Eve March’s Miss Callahan, the kind of supportive teacher every child remembers later in life, Oliver is as regretful afterwards as Amy. It is every bit as disturbing as the crushed precious innocence of the woodland creatures in Disney’s Bambi at the news that “Man has entered the forest”.

Since locations are as iconic in fairy-tales as their stock characters, the woods also feature meaningfully toward the end of Curse. While her garden is a safe enchanting haven and the Fallon House is the type of property all good children are told not to play near, the woods harbour all manner of traditional fears. The aforementioned Horseman pursues Amy as we saw while her parents and the police track her down with bloodhounds.

There is just enough time though for her to experience another trauma when she makes for the Fallon house and unknowingly causes Julia to have what may be a fatal seizure in the excitement.  Upon seeing Amy at hand, wicked witch Barbara spits “Even my mother’s last moments you’ve stolen from me” but just before an even worse chastisement awaits Amy than at home, she invokes the help of her friend one last time. This is one of two ambiguities delivered in the film’s climax. We see Irena merge with Barbara’s form in a manner that inexplicably pacifies Barbara’s wrath, and there is no happy ending for her unresolved pain that now will never gain closure. Perhaps Lewton was making the point (during the personal final rewrite he did on each script) that the ever-present black cloud that dogged his life could plague the resolution of others.


A rather more optimistic ambiguity ends the movie when the family are reunited. When Amy confirms that she can still see Irena, he replies: “I see her too darling”. Has his remorse-cum-relief at Amy’s safety opened his heart to the very imaginative possibilities he felt forced to beat her for? He is not looking in Irena’s direction so we cannot be sure he isn’t simply indulging his daughter lovingly. Either way, the hint of lingering magic is a fitting end to the pleasures of Curse of the Cat People.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

THE UNINVITED (1944)

Whilst famous for its pasties, fudge and clotted cream teas, Cornwall added another less welcome attraction for visitors in 1944’s eerie supernatural thriller The Uninvited: ghosts that weep in the night. It was director Lewis Allen’s feature film debut for Paramount Pictures and fine work he and his collaborators made of it, conjuring up an atmospheric handsomely-crafted film of subtle tastefulness, humour and intrigue.

An excellent screenplay was based on Dorothy McArdle’s novel Uneasy Freehold (an apt understatement), co-written by film noir writer Frank Partos who went on to a shared Oscar-nominated with Millen Brand for 1948’s The Snake Pit, and actress-turned-playwright-turned children’s novelist Dodie Smith, later famous for the novels of I Capture the Castle (1949) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956).

Essentially The Uninvited is a more substantial variation on the old haunted house formula yet raised from too much heavy lifting by great performances and Allen’s confident balance between the paranormal goings-on and a light, witty touch. Ray Millan and Ruth Hussey play sophisticated London siblings Rick and Pam Fitzgerald holidaying on the Cornish coast, whose squirrel-chasing dog leads them into the enchanting Windward House which on impulse soon becomes their new home. Their survey-free hasty purchase (driven by Pam) soon becomes a lesson in ‘buyer beware’ when they discover it’s not as empty as it appears.

Having a brother and sister as leads rather than a lovey-dovey couple is a refreshing change, allowing Milland and Hussey to have fun sparking believable sibling banter off each other. They not only have an urban metropolitan worldliness as the characters; Hussey had already been an Academy Award nominee as a practised exponent of quick-fire wit among debonair socialites in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Milland, long before his run of celebrated horror movies for the likes of Roger Corman, was here midway through a twenty-year spell as a Paramount leading man, becoming their highest-paid actor and the following year winning an Oscar for the alcoholic writer in the heavyweight The Lost Weekend.  Here, he is similarly upmarket and artistic playing a playfully scornful music critic 
but battling with altogether different demons along the way.

Although the opening gives us a thoughtful retrospective voiceover by Milland over tempestuous Cornish coastal waves, the tone never lingers in ponderous psychological complexity for long. Eminent composer and fellow Oscar-winner Victor Young underscores nimbly the scenes intended to lighten the mood as much as the darker tones. Rick decides against sliding down the bannister of their dramatic staircase with the droll realisation that “My landing gear isn’t what it used to be”. 

The title of The Uninvited may not just apply to a gradual discovery of paranormal occupants in their
new abode; it is also very much the attitude radiating from the owner who sells the Fitzgeralds Windward House. The part of Commander Beech is a perfect fit for Donald Crisp, a firm hand on the tiller of stern patriarchs most notably in his Oscar-winning turn for 1942’s How Green Was My Valley (strengthening this movie’s pedigree even more). The Commander is as keen to offload the house, with its previous history of tenant “disturbances”, as he is not to permit his granddaughter Stella Meredith to set foot in it again. Gail Russell makes a wholesome and lovely Stella recalling the young Elizabeth Taylor, innocent and fresh without becoming grating. This is vital since she and Rick develop a charming romance against her grandfather’s wishes to offset moodier concerns. Indeed, such is Stella’s influence as a muse upon Rick that he (thanks to Victor Young) composes the song Stella by Starlight for her in the movie that became a jazz standard.

The earliest hint of visitors from the other realm is when Rick and Pam explore the attic room overlooking the sea. There are restless waves outside the window, yet inside a subtler presence is felt. Aside from the physical chill felt by both siblings, there is a pervasive air of awful melancholy that infuses anyone who lingers there for long. The film’s effects work introduced in this scene, as pleasingly delicate and restrained as the other elements, manifests the sense of foreboding in the seemingly simple time-lapse rotting of a flower bouquet. Paramount’s Head of Visual Effects was the renowned Farciot Edouart richly deserving of two career Oscars amongst other Academy accolades. I have already featured his masterful photography FX in my review of Dr Cyclops (1940) and that merely opens up his account in the horror genre. He would grace something like 350 Hollywood films up to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby including the whole decade of 1940 to 1949 for Paramount. Clearly the studio’s management must have been doing something right to encourage such long-serving company creatives as he, Milland and Edith Head whom we shall come to shortly. Part of his legacy was the mentorship of Universal’s John P Fulton, whose own ground-breaking effects we covered in their Invisible Man series on this site.

Throughout The Uninvited, Edouart’s visuals (assisted by an uncredited Gordon Jennings) subtly
suggest an emerging spectral force, one that crucially must not be too easily identified for plot purposes and benefits the viewer with their elusiveness. We are treated to a milky vaporous shape that develops over time into a vaguely feminine form, threatening the Fitzgeralds along with their friends – not just Stella but also the welcome Alan Napier as Dr Scott whom fantasy fans will know particularly as trusty butler Alfred to Sixties TV’s Batman. The murkiness of the ghost’s appearance is mirrored in its history. We are told it is a vengeful spirit seeking justice for a torrid affair between Stella’s father and a Spanish gypsy Carmel that resulted in her mother Mary falling from the cliff-side – and yet who exactly is this restless soul? Is it actually Stella’s mother Mary as we are led to believe? Again, part of the satisfaction of this film is in its successful construction as an engaging whodunnit to complement the humorous and the softly chilling.

Amongst the rest of the cast there are vivid turns by Barbara Everest as warm Oirish housekeeper Lizzie Flynn and an enjoyably eccentric cameo from Dorothy Stickney as the suitably named flighty mental patient Miss Bird. The most striking support though comes from Cornelia Otis Skinner as the sinister nurse Miss Holloway, director of the Mary Meredith Retreat (labelled a hospital for convalescing mental patients). She is a splendidly poised villainess, an occult-tinged Nurse Ratched. In real-life Skinner was a critically acclaimed theatrical monologuist and brings to this role a self-possessed (if not Mary-possessed) imperious authority. There are Sapphic undertones to her devotion to Mary, constantly defending her increasingly domineering actions to a huge portrait of Stella’s late mother. She has watched over Stella with an intensity far in excess of the girl’s grandfather and with a deliciously macabre intensity. 

By the climax, Paramount’s illustrious house costume maestro Edith Head carefully augments the suggestion of pagan weirdness by clothing Holloway in a ceremonial gown and amulet. Her dialogue flirts further with our suspicion that she is in the service of very dark forces when the Fitzgeralds confront her about the missing Stella. She burbles about “those moments when the light is very clear, when the scales swing into perfect balance”. As the band of heroes race to save Stella from being home alone with the resident evil, Holloway gleefully turns to the painting once more to celebrate their telepathically-perceived plans: “No frayed edges. All straight. All smooth” which is more than can be said for her unravelling mind.

The narrative drive builds to an inevitable face-off between Rick and the finally identified ghost (no
spoiler here). This sequence caps the tremendous cinematography by yet another Academy Award winner Charles Lang in his sublime use of shadowy depths, shrouding Milland artfully on that signature staircase before he cancels out the apparition with a throw of the candelabra. As if his cheeky grin payoff isn’t enough to remind you of the comedic thread running through the film, the final exchange between Rick and the concerned Stella hits a bullseye worthy of Bob Hope:

“You’re shaking, Rick”
“I’ve had a narrow escape. She might have been my mother-in-law!”

By carefully pacing the tension and taking the time to develop its relationships as much as atmosphere, The Uninvited transcends other coarse jump-shock examples of this sub-genre to be an intelligent and entertaining minor classic.