Tuesday, 31 October 2017
It wasn’t just Universal that unimaginatively mined the last dregs from their once-lucrative horror tropes in 1945. Poverty Row studios such as Republic did much the same, with at least an understandable lack of resources applied to them. The Vampire’s Ghost was a typical example; a bloodless and noticeably toothless double-bill programmer whose content matched the lack of care shown in the title: a (barely-qualifying) vampire with no reference to the spirit world and no need either since he’s already undead!
The dull story aims for an exotic setting by taking us to Africa “where the jungle is dark and full of secrets”. The studio backlot village of Bakunda, with its constant underscoring of jungle drums, is home to one such secret that is now out in the open - the realisation of four local murders that panic the plantation workers owned by Roy (Charles Gordon). All the bodies have dual neck puncture wounds in common and there are whispers of vampirism in their midst. Almost immediately we are introduced to the chief suspect, a sinister bar owner named Fallon - “Gaelic for stranger” we are heavy-handedly informed. In case this doesn’t raise enough suspicion, we see an unsettling supernatural power emanate from him after the integrity of his card-gaming is questioned in a scuffle. The thin, bulging-eyed Fallon disarms a knife-wielding sailor using a penetrating stare that is more laughable than intimidating.
It’s a less than creditable vehicle for classical Shakespearean stage actor John Abbott who played Peter Althius in our previously-reviewed Cry of the Werewolf. In that same year, 1944, he had shown shrewder judgement as the lead in the original stage version of the hit comedy Harvey (later memorably taken in the 1950 film by James Stewart). Abbott was convinced that the whimsical piece would work much better if the imagined six-foot tall rabbit was unseen except in his character’s mind. Playwright Mary Chase later agreed but only after Abbott was replaced.
He does his best in The Vampire’s Ghost to infuse Fallon with some depth, befitting an undead soul caught between relishing his power to convert the living and needing eternal release after 400 years of restless virtual immortality. Sadly, in his white imperialist gentleman’s suit he is more a bored ice-cream vendor than the Prince of Darkness, required to do nothing more horrific than a couple of glowerings and twice be on the receiving end of “a spear dipped in molten silver” which turns out not to be the best way to finish him off anyway.
As Roy, Gordon manfully struggles in vain to shake off Fallon’s occult influence over him. The latter confides in him his deep desire to ultimately be freed, going so far as to spill the spiritual beans by revealing that his body must be consumed in fire and the resulting ashes scattered. Not that the enslaved Roy can do anything about it. Nor can Grant Withers as the solid Father Gilchrist who predictably argues Roy’s candidacy for religious salvation: “The place for that help is the House of God”. Nor can club dancer Lisa (B-picture siren Adele Mara) who teams up with grizzled sailor Barrett (Poverty Row western stalwart Roy Barcroft) to get even with the cheating Fallon over the card table. Director Lesley Selander, who would later helm four years of the TV series Lassie (1955-59), ensures a fatal hounding of Barrett in retaliation, Fallon stalking him through the streets in a cursory foot-chase seemingly inspired by the walking close-up shots of Lewton and Tourneur’s films such as Cat People (1942). The only moments of style in the film are Fallon’s looming shadow falling upon Barrett pre-murder and a similar use of shadow-play in the climax.
For good measure, Fallon possesses a slightly wooden Peggy Stewart as Roy’s lover Julie, aiming for a partner to make his everlasting torment bearable. As of writing this, Ms Stewart’s longevity is doing very nicely without paranormal assistance in a screen career that recently entered her ninth decade. Fallon is finally relieved of his ethereal burden just before putting the bite on Julie - the one scene that at least has a vampire connection – by Roy confronting him with a crucifix. The cinematography attributed to Robert Pittack and Bud Thackery frames this nicely by casting the cross shadow upon his forehead, a vivid image that rounds off a thoroughly average B-movie.
THE FROZEN GHOST (1945)
1945 was The middle of 1945 was a disappointing time for ghost-hunters. After Republic’s May release of The Vampire’s Ghost alluded to non-existent phantoms, the fourth film in Universal’s Inner Sanctum series two weeks later, The Frozen Ghost, also contained zero spectral activity, being instead a reference to the suspended animation undergone by victims on-screen and possibly in the audience.
The Frozen Ghost was another chance for Universal to channel the luckless and tortured persona of Lon Chaney Jr into a scenario still capitalising on his doomed breakout role of 1941’s The Wolf Man.
As with the previous entry, Dead Man’s Eyes, he is an innocent man convinced he is the unwitting architect of murder around him. Alex Gregor is a celebrated stage hypnotist who one night has to handle a belligerent drunk invited up during a live radio show broadcast. “It’s all done with mirrors” the lush insists. Wishing the rude man dead, Gregor finds that his power inadvertently just does that during the trance state. Although his loyal manager George Keene (Milburn Stone) emphasises the man was a terminal alcoholic, Gregor torments himself with guilt, the default setting for a Chaney protagonist. Stone went onto appear as Doc Adams across the entire twenty year run of TV’s Western show Gunsmoke and here gives a focused, slightly gangster-esque turn, a manner borne out by later plot developments.
Evelyn Ankers also works out her studio contract by being plugged in gamely as Gregor’s stage assistant and fiancé Maura. She becomes part of a virtual love quartet encircling Gregor when he’s supposed to be gaining recuperative relief as a lecturing guest lodger at the wax museum run by Madame Monet (Tala Birell - Maxine in 1944’s The Monster Maker reviewed earlier). Gregor doesn’t know that Monet is painting him into a corner with her secret amorous self-interest. Meanwhile her niece Nina (Elena Verdugo) has a harmless crush on this showbiz superstar, recalling the more damaging obsession she had with Chaney’s Larry Talbot that caused destructive jealousy in House of Frankenstein (1944).
What meagre entertainment there is belongs to Douglass Dumbrille and Martin Kosleck on opposite sides of the law. Dumbrille’s distinguished demeanour graced a number of classic movies: Marx Brothers fans will know him from his beleaguered suave villainy in A Day at the Races (1937) and The Big Store (1941). Here, director Harold (The Mummy’s Tomb) Young allows him to adjust his trademark cool smugness to fighting crime as intrepid Inspector Brant, despite some ill-fitting slang accorded him by Bernard Schubert and Luci Ward’s dialogue. He gives a nicely underplayed nuance to lines like “You’re wrong Maura. I’m a very understanding man”.
As Hollywood’s resident purveyor of Nazi evil, Kosleck cleaves closer to type as a memorable ex-plastic surgeon turned sinister waxwork designer Rudi Polden. His identification with Teutonic terror was such that Kosleck played Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in no less than five separate screen incarnations during a movie career spanning over fifty years. No prizes for guessing that his imperious, high-cheekboned presence and penchant for knife-throwing mark him out as a co-conspirator of harm. Less obvious though hinted at in performance is that Keene is his racketeering partner; together they schemed to unbalance Gregor into madness and sanitarium committal by drugging Gregor’s ‘victims’ into the aforementioned suspended state – though it’s uncertain how they could benefit from his presumed wealth.
Another logic gap appears courtesy of Gregor when he gains enough clarity through his self-flagellation to turn his very real hypnotic talent into making Maura vividly recall Keene and Rudi’s implication in Madame Monet’s bungled death. How could she remotely observe acts she wasn’t an actual witness to? Never mind; let us assume Gregor isn’t the only half of this couple with a genuine paranormal ability, and discard that howler as casually as Rudi’s accidental fall backwards into the furnace he intended to burn Nina in. With a rare levity, Chaney gets to end the film blithely telling Brant now that “It’s all done with mirrors”, although The Frozen Ghost is a pretty poor reflection of the actors available.
Thursday, 19 October 2017
The release of the spooky comedy Blithe Spirit in May 1945 was a meeting of two grand and formidable minds, consciously crafted reputations strong enough to label them respectively in the industry as ‘The Master’ and ‘The King’: playwright and bon viveur Noel Coward and rising star actor Rex Harrison.
Noel Coward (1889-1973) was born into what he called ‘genteel poverty’ in south-west London and was able to transform himself by careful image projection from a humble child actor with an ambitious mother into the epitome of upper middle-class sophistication. This shrewd self-invention may have given him the crucial slight distancing of a relative outsider that enabled him to acidly and affectionately satirise high society with stunning success. By the age of just 26, he already had four West End hits running at the same time including the scandalous family nymphomania and drugs drama The Vortex. Coward also ensured the cementing of an idealised self as his ‘brand’ (long before social media made it commonplace among anyone even tangentially linked to show business). He did this by writing himself the lead role in many of his plays, thus cannily keeping himself employed and controlling the narrative of how he was perceived.
By the time World War Two broke out, Coward had amassed a staggering body of work encompassing 32 plays and 150 songs - even more impressive from a self-taught creative who could neither write nor read music. Amidst the light stage comedies and irresistible ditties such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, he did not shirk from addressing the harsh realities of wartime strife. Asking Prime Minister Winston Churchill what he could do for the war effort, he was requested to entertain the troops. On the one hand this was provided by topical crowd-pleasing songs like the cheekily baiting Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to The Germans and more soberly by his writing and producing the fine and moving films In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944) partnering with director David Lean.
Coward dashed off the play of Blithe Spirit over five or six days from the safety of a seaside hotel during the Blitz. Its whimsical treatment of the afterlife as a source for henpecking mirth amongst other things was daring for the time, and yet it created a charmingly British form of resistance. Optimistic escapism was as important to beleaguered audiences as facing their unavoidable everyday traumas. Noel Coward showed he could honour both needs.
He didn’t feel as well supported in return though by Hollywood when it came to translating his theatre triumphs to the screen. The film version of Private Lives in 1931 was judged a weak reinterpretation, and despite the greater success of Design for Living (1933) under comedy maestro Ernst Lubitsch, it fared no better in Coward’s nor the critics’ eyes for having changed most of the original play. This time the playwright felt he could only entrust Blithe Spirit to David Lean with whom he had the two aforementioned movie successes. This would however generate mixed results.
The main character Charles Condomine was a familiar Coward role model, a self-regarding aesthete, the ‘hag-ridden’ centre of a whirlwind of partially spectral female forces against whom he gets to fire off reactive, waspish bon-mots whilst fending off plenty of theirs. As conventionally chauvinistic as Coward was, his ladies as written gave as good as they got in the one-liner department. When it came to fashioning the movie version, there was only one gentleman other than the Master himself who could inhabit Condomine’s qualities.
Much like Noel Coward, Rex Harrison (1908–1990) was essentially a self-made man. Although he too came from middle-class respectability, he also had to work hard - not only to create a determinedly debonair persona a world away from his unrefined background, but to overcome professional limitations. Unlike his theatre contemporaries such as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, Harrison received no formal acting training at all. This partly explains his life-long aversion to Shakespeare (though he became a great exponent of Shaw). What seemed an effortless technique and facility for high comedy that eventually made his name was sculpted the hard way, through the on-the-job slog of touring repertory theatres around the country.
Harrison began his stage apprenticeship in the 1920s on typically low beginner’s wages and parts yet he already began affecting a toff’s dress code, at one point sporting a monocle on and off-stage that his fellow actors mocked as too pretentious even back then. Harrison cared not a jot. He was forging a hard shell of self-will that gave him precision and discipline yet was coupled with enough unfeeling egotism to earn him a bad personal reputation for the rest of his life. Alexander Walker’s biography of him, Fatal Charm, outlines the potential role model perils awaiting an impressionable young man. He acquired finesse from his idol Gerald du Maurier, but gained an education in diva tendencies from leading lady Marie Tempest. Not for nothing or with fondness did his haughty regality earn him the industry nickname of ‘The King’.
Nevertheless, Harrison’s acidic demeanour, long established before My Fair Lady’s global blockbuster, was a marketable type in a profession that celebrates and encourages bad behaviour as long as it’s lucrative. Coward would have been well aware of his established stage persona. He needed as sure-fire a leading man as possible to do justice to his biggest stage hit which ran for almost 2000 performances and didn’t close until the year after the film came out. Although the role of Condomine fit Harrison like a glove, it was one that actually pinched interminably for him during filming. He didn’t appreciate wearing a garment so precisely tailored to its author’s measurements; there was no wiggle room for him to personalise the part with his own choices.
The other issue was the choice of director. David Lean was well on his way to the future epic visionary behind Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago - but he was not a man to bring the funny. Many years later Harrison acknowledged the difficulty of having the wrong sensibility in charge here: “It is awfully hard working for a director with no sense of humour”.
Blithe Spirit is a frivolous piece in style as well as content, filmed in magical Technicolor by cinematographer and later director Ronald Neame. Lean however wanted to ground it in an earthbound reality. On stage it is a fun sustained battle of the sexes between Condomine the leisurely mystery writer angling for a quiet life, his disciplined bossy second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) and the sudden intervention of his deceased, much-loved first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) summoned up by the seemingly dubious medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford).
Lean opens up the play beyond the four walls of the stage original, for example by separating Ruth’s sceptical carpings over Charles’s spook sighting (he’s the only one who can see Elvira) over a whole day of changing locations. This gives a sense of realism yet it breaks the flow of suspending the audience’s own disbelief. Twice Lean directs our point-of-view to be switched to Ruth so that her incredulity at Charles apparently talking to himself can be appreciated.
When Harrison is allowed his head of steam he is very enjoyable to watch, savouring each snarky remark he can aim at the women encircling him. He has his work cut out though and is often reduced to being a bystander, observing the female-driven proceedings around him like a wincing Cheshire cat continually denied a snooze in the sun. Margaret Rutherford eclipses him as a bracing force of unpredictable nature whom you can’t take your eyes off whenever she is on screen, whether flamboyantly dancing about in a pre-séance warm-up or delivering pearls of priceless Coward-isms – “I never touch Indian. It upsets my vibrations”.
Cummings is a resolute and lovely no-nonsense foil, not only to Charles’ snide sexism but in contrast to Hammond’s lush and impulsive Elvira. Hammond actually came in for unflattering physical criticism during shooting which seems unwarranted on the evidence of her appeal here. Neame, who went on to manfully cope with the special-effects vessel of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) failed to see her allure through his viewfinder. “What’s this bloke doing wasting his time with the other harpy when he’s got this bit waiting for him upstairs in bed?” he said on set whilst struggling to light her satisfactorily. For me, she is adorable in the part, possessing the kind of maddeningly elusive charm that credibly establishes her as Charles’ greatest love. Green-tinged all over in a flowing gown matched to hair and skin, offset with scarlet lips and nails, she oozes a wicked, mocking sexuality. Her voice is also unconventionally attractive: suggestive and with an almost lazy drawl that seduces like a soft cushion. “The way that woman harps on bed” she teases Ruth in absentia for Charles’ ears only.
This is not to say Elvira is an unimpeachable angel. She can be downright merciless, beyond simply disapproving of Ruth’s taste and buttoned-up temperament. A possible flaw in Coward’s writing is the unjustifiable cruelty with which she flaunts affairs she had such as with Captain Bracegirdle whilst alive. The only advantage this gives is a sneaky chauvinist one to bring the audience onside with Charles whenever he responds in similar tone.
To be fair, Lean made one important change to the play’s ending for the film that may have benefitted it sympathy-wise. The stage version closes with Charles defiantly addressing the unseen, now dual phantom pests of Elvira and Ruth (who dies in the car Elvira had tinkered with in order to be reunited with Charles post-mortem). Leaving aside how a transparent Elvira is able to affect earthbound mechanics, he somewhat heartlessly crows “I’m going to enjoy myself as I’ve never enjoyed myself before!” The movie closure goes a stage further by Elvira literally engineering his demise as well so that post-crash he joins the ladies sitting on a wall in green-tinted resignation. If Lean had applied the same whimsy to the piece as a whole, Blithe Spirit may well have been a more sparkling gem.
In his war-years autobiography Future Indefinite Coward dismissed the film with the elegant: “I will draw a light, spangled veil over Blithe Spirit which they made while I was away in South Africa. It wasn’t entirely bad, but it was a great deal less good than it should have been”. He was more blunt at the time according to Geoffrey O’Brien’s Criterion DVD edition notes, telling Lean after seeing a rough-cut: “My dear, you’ve just fucked up the best thing I ever wrote”.
For Coward, Harrison and Lean, Blithe Spirit could be regarded as an entertaining little leg-stretching stroll during an otherwise unstoppable climb to greater fame and fortune.
Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Today, I'm departing from my chronological timeline to briefly honour a terrific new talent I had the pleasure of seeing at work last night helming one of the finest zombie movies ever made: Busanhaeng (Train To Busan) - by a major new talent, South Korean director Yeon Sang-Ho.
It's crafted with unusual care and dashes of humour to bring out great performances and characters you can actually care about rather than the usual thin, 20-something model stereotypes. We never lose sight of the human peril and the conflict between self-serving and helping one another as a party of students, a selfish corporate suit and his daughter, and one of the most wonderfully unlikely heroes do battle with a city-scape and carriages full of the rampaging infected.
Train to Busan has a brilliant bullet-train pace that never lets up from the outbreak onward, a poignant score and the kind of all-action stunning set-pieces that could well have you replaying sequences. (If you enjoyed World War Z's jaw-dropping undead swarm up the Jerusalem wall, you'll love this...).
Even the army of extras playing the zombies commit superbly to their raging, body-popping physicalisation.
Forget the abysmal, cheap. forced-cult deluge we've been subjected to since Shaun of the Dead and get a load of this balls-to-the-wall modern masterpiece.
Monday, 16 October 2017
The closing months of 1945 brought joyous relief to millions across the world with the end of World War Two. For fans of Universal horror movies, there was a less welcome silencing of their great guns of monsterdom with the final woeful attempt at serious franchise-milking with House of Dracula. Directed like the previous multi-pack creature feature House of Frankenstein by Erle C. Kenton, it was scripted by Edmund T. Lowe who had written Lon Chaney’s original The Hunchback of Notre Dame back in 1923. Here he would supply dialogue for the son now too as Lon Chaney (Jr) returned along with John Carradine and Lionel Atwill. This would be the only continuation of the lineage with any merit since House of Dracula plays out like a sad contractual obligation for all concerned.
Similar to its predecessor, Dracula is a game of two separate halves whereby the Prince of Darkness flaps and hypnotises for the first thirty minutes and is then eradicated, leaving the Wolf Man hamstrung with little to do and Frankenstein’s Monster merely getting in a couple of minutes of screen time before bringing the house down. The greater problem is the continual sabotaging of any promising ideas.
Lowe does try to make this last entry justify itself in the mythology by creating an over-riding concept of the search for a cure, not just for Chaney’s Lawrence Talbot but also for Carradine’s Dracula – a mystifying addition as he was vaporised in the sunlight half way through the last film. Carradine is presented so lamely here in fact that only the pay-check must have compensated for the campery he is forced to endure.
He introduces himself as a bat-on-a-string that morphs by animation into the Count right into the drawing room of Onslow Stevens’ Dr Edelmann in Vesaria. Their meeting immediately sets the bar for performance and direction as head-thuddingly low; Stevens waking from his nap with only the mildest surprise at this suave stranger appearing in his house. (This also begs the question – isn’t a vampire forbidden to enter a home unless invited?). Edelmann’s drowsy scientific curiosity still hasn’t woken up fully even when Dracula asks to go down to his basement to reveal that the coffin down there is his, thus revealing his identity. He does his best to engage the doctor with the exhortation to free him of his vampiric curse, yet it will be much later in the plot before Edelmann/Stevens is fully engaged or even present.
Another minor novelty in the film is equipping the doctor with a female hunchbacked assistant, Nina, played by ex-model Jane Adams who went on to appear in the Rondo Hatton vehicle The Brute Man (1946) as well as being Vicky Vale in 1949’s Batman and Robin. Although she avoids the mental enfeeblement cliché like J Carrol Naish’s Daniel in House of Frankenstein, Kenton handicaps her with a house-style of emoting her emotional peaks melodramatically with a far-away resolute look as if auditioning for Scarlett O’Hara. Most of the cast are directed to do the same which doesn’t help claw back any credibility.
Someone who needs no instruction to mine the searing depths of torment is Chaney, Universal’s Man of Constant Sorrow. The full moon waits for no Wolf Man as he vainly tries to impress upon the lovely Nurse Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll) that he in dire need of Edelmann’s treatment himself. “There isn’t time!” he whimpers at being told to wait, fearing the impending face fur.
The other type of fuzz arrives in the shape of Lionel Atwill whose tragic post-court scandal life (see my Atwill entry) had less than a year remaining. He has a little more to do than in the last sequel, as authoritative Inspector Holtz; it’s hard though to make the villagers feel the force in a uniform, cap and jodhpurs better suited to directing traffic. He at least has got Talbot in human form pre-emptively jailed for everyone’s benefit. Edelmann turns up in time for Talbot to become the Wolf Man behind bars. It’s the first of two chances to again see Jack Pierce’s excellent layered prosthetics in close-up dissolve shots – however Kenton scuppers any impact by cutting away twice mid-transformation to low-intensity reaction shots from the cast.
After a failed suicide bid to leave the movie by taking a header into the raging sea, Talbot is found in a sea cave by Edelmann and here we are asked to swallow two ludicrous contrivances in one. Not only does the tunnel network grow the Clavaria Formosa spores that Edelmann believes can reshape Talbot’s cranium instead of using surgery – okay, that’s kind of plausible - it also somehow contains the washed-up body of Frankenstein’s Monster and the skeleton of Dr Niemann who we last saw drowning inland in quicksand! Ironically, Boris Karloff pulled off the greatest escape act of all by refusing to come back from the dead for any more of this nonsense. Doctor and patient are even luckier in discovering a secret passage to Frankenstein’s perfectly-preserved laboratory.
Before Edelmann can get to work on Glenn Strange’s luckless hulk, he experiments with a blood transfusion between he and Dracula that has him instead falling victim to the influence of the double-crossing vampire’s own blood. On the one hand it certainly jacks up Stevens’ energy level, but it sends him to the other extreme of Expressionist pantomime ham, accentuated facially with angular mood lighting and baggy-eyed make-up. In a lucid Jekyll moment, he manages to save Miliza from having Dracula put the bite on her by exposing his slumbering body to the sun’s rays: “The evil I brought here – will never live again”.
Don’t speak too soon. His good deed for the day done. Edelmann commits fully to the Monster rejuvenation that he envisions in a fever-dream montage sequence. Meanwhile, there is one nicely-staged scene that matters in the chronology of Universal horror – that of Edelmann’s one success story Talbot facing the rising sun without becoming the Wolf Man at last. It is a touching moment to see him healed after five years, albeit bittersweet that it will not last (which audiences wouldn’t know till 1948).
This just leaves a rushed climax. The obligatory villagers march on the castle incited by the emerging pock-marked pixie of horror character actors Skelton Knaggs; Edelmann strangles Nina, fries Inspector Holtz clumsily on a circuit bank and electrically boosts Glenn Strange into a brief grimacing strut toward Talbot. Newly-humanised Chaney is given the refreshing chance to be a hero for once by shooting Edelmann and taking Miliza to safety just as the Monster goes down in flames yet again. He wasn’t to know that the saga for his wolfish alter ego was not so easily sealed off.
Ultimately the only successful cure for the degenerative disease of low quality that ravaged this body of work was to inject the terminal franchise with a fast-acting comedy serum beginning three years later with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Leaving aside the unexplained resurgence of Talbot’s lycanthropy - another plot gap blithely skipped over - the extended lease of life did bring in a whole new (and controversially much younger) audience to the Universal Monster Hall of Fame.
Saturday, 14 October 2017
The awful trauma endured by British cities during the Blitz of September 1940 to May 1941 could never be underestimated. Even by 1945 when The Brighton Strangler was released, it would be a very vivid memory for millions. This B-movie made by RKO used the hideous personal effect of bombardment as an inciting incident for a horror-tinged murder thriller.
The lead dual-role is that of actor Reginald Parker and his murderous stage character Edward Grey with whom he confuses himself after a Blitz bombing raid causes him concussion – leading him to act out his theatre role for real. They were played by John Loder who in real life had already suffered front-line duty fighting in Gallipoli and the Somme during World War One. He had followed this with a busy film career in Britain for the esteemed likes of Alexander Korda in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Alfred Hitchcock in Saboteur (1936) and even supporting Boris Karloff in 1936’s The Man who Changed his Mind (see review). His Hollywood period saw roles in notable vehicles but he never quite caught the public’s imagination as a lead, instead becoming a busy freelancer.
The Brighton Strangler was a rare lead for Loder who acquits himself well enough. In general, the film’s cast are professional without being distinguished as such, which is par for the course in B-movies of the period. German-born director Max Nosseck had begun as an actor and jazz band leader before coming to America in 1933 to escape the rising persecution of his Jewish countrymen. His direction is decent enough, with a strikingly-realised depiction of the Blitz as a backdrop through which Parker staggers. He co-wrote the functional screenplay with Hugh Gray and Arnold Lipp.
Loder’s co-stars included glamorous June Duprez who had a promising start during the early war years, in particular for Korda as well - in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) until her representation over-estimated her market value in Hollywood. As April, the WAAF who befriends Parker/Gray almost to her cost she is a beguiling partner. Michael St Angel has the right clean-cut American looks and aw-shucks pleasant persona as Lt. Bob Carson, the Air Force flyboy whose lingo befuddles the Londoners around him and is the first to spot that Parker’s Gray identity is unstable: “There’s something fishy about that guy”.
Parker/Gray begins to live out his theatre part for real, imprinting on Ian Wolfe’s unfortunate Mayor the homicidal vengeance he dished out eight times a week to his defending barrister on stage. The gentlemanly Miles Mander also finds himself in the firing line as Chief Inspector Allison, who would have regretted showing Gray (under the guise of a researching crime writer) his murder case mementoes if he’d known his prize noose would end up dispatching him.
Along the way, there are hints to Gray of his real self trying to break through: a newsreel mentioning his theatre workplace and a reference to New Year’s Eve when he was supposed to meet his attractive fiancé Dorothy Kent (Rose Hobart) briefly stem his impulses twice.
Intrepid Bob happens to connect Parker’s actor and concussed fictional selves after seeing a pub poster of him advertising cigarettes - a common and lucrative form of product placement for Forties stars. This leads us to a race against time as Gray attempts to kill April on a hotel rooftop in a way that exactly replicates the stage climax of his play that we saw in the opening. Instead of attempting hostage negotiation psychology, Dorothy cleverly encourages the police and friends with her below to applaud him – finally breaking the spell returning Parker’s memory. Sadly, he takes an inadvertent final bow that plummets him to his death – an effective ending for a reasonable supporting feature.
Friday, 13 October 2017
Writer Robert Louis Stephenson (1850 – 1894) had a fascination with the grisly underbelly of his native Edinburgh that wasn’t just a prurient pleasure enjoyed by a slumming well-to-do gentleman. It also inspired his darkest fictional writing about the evils that men may do. The dissembling of a violent beast behind the demeanour of seeming virtue in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) was influenced by Deacon William Brodie (1741-1788), a respectable security expert who ran a double life exploiting his skills to burgle the homes of the city gentry whose reputation he cultivated by day.
A more infamous case that was ideal fuel for Stephenson was the sensational true story of William Burke and William Hare who, along with accomplices Helen M'Dougal and Margaret Hare, carried out 16 grave-robbings during 1828 and sold them to eminent surgeon Dr Robert Knox who constantly needed fresh corpses to dissect with his students. The case exposed much that been hidden from the public including the ethical problem of how to maintain viable ongoing medical research when the only cavaders allowed were the limited supply gained legally from suicide, prison death or orphaned or foundling corpses. The temptation of a lucrative black market’s supply and demand easily outweighed morality, especially if one argued the greater gain to society. Hare cut a deal to inform on his cohorts in lieu of prosecution. Ironically for Burke his conviction resulted in his own hanging and dissection and whose skeleton to this day is displayed within Edinburgh Medical School’s Anatomical Museum. Stephenson’s resulting short story The Body Snatcher was printed in December 1884.
Unsurprisingly a version of the Burke and Hare origin story eventually found its way onto the silver screen; fortunately for horror fans the first notable film to use it was produced by Val Lewton as part of his 1940s tenure at RKO Studios. As usual, Lewton involved himself fully in the screenplay co-written with Philip Macdonald who had experience conveying an unsettling Gothic sensibility for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Lewton chose Robert Wise to helm a third project for him, following up his impressive directing debut rescuing the over-running Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the period war drama Mademoiselle Fifi later that year There was no doubt though whose influence on the film was ultimately felt the most. Once again The Body Snatcher bore the stamp of a Val Lewton film that belied its title with much greater thematic depth and artistry than a standard B-movie.
The talented producer not only added literary lustre to the project, he also gave it a star in need of a career polishing – however under somewhat strained circumstances. As we saw in Arsenic and Old Lace, Boris Karloff had come back to Hollywood refreshed from the show’s stage success yet soon found himself set back again by the relative failure of 1944’s The Climax and then the crumbling façade of Universal’s horror franchises with House of Frankenstein (both reviewed here) – albeit with the latter providing a very companionable shoot. It was during the Frankenstein filming that Karloff was contacted by RKO with a view to working on their horror films. An exciting prospect indeed but one that Lewton was actually resistant to, being instead the brainchild of the studio’s new boss, former Universal executive Jack G Gross.
Stephen Jacobs’ biography quotes Robert Wise when he along with fellow director Mark Robson and Lewton reluctantly first met the English actor: “-but when he turned those eyes on us, and that velvety voice said ‘Good afternoon, gentlemen’, we were his and never thought about anything else”. Karloff signed with RKO on May the 18th 1944. It was to be the beginning of a happy partnership between star and studio.
While Gross revealed a coarseness of approach in what he wanted to see on screen, Lewton soon discovered a kindred ally in Karloff, an artist who shared his refined taste in horror aesthetics. As we’ve seen, Karloff had certainly suffered his unfair share of movie roles catering to the lowest denominator of audience and filmmaker. He appreciated that his new producer’s films “were based on the principle of making the audience do most of the work, using hints and suggestions which each spectator’s imagination could play round”.
Karloff’s initial workload did not go according to plan. Isle of the Dead was to be his opening commitment, but agonising back pain that had begun on The Climax meant that he could only endure part of the scheduled shoot. Lewton was forced to shut down production while the star went into hospital for spinal fusion and a month’s recuperation. Thus The Body Snatcher now had to precede it.
Despite Lewton’s sensitivity and restraint with screenplays, the original script of The Body Snatcher was to contain such graphic scenes of the grave-robbers’ handiwork that the Breen Office insisted they be removed. (Even upon release, any mere mention of Burke and Hare was trimmed from the British print and it was not until 1998 that UK video audiences could finally see an uncut version).
In constructing the movie and to better position their headlining actor, Lewton and Macdonald gave greater prominence to Karloff’s role, the evil Cabman John Gray than he had in Stephenson’s story. There, the essential plot revolved around a cover-up of Gray’s murder by eminent Dr Macfarlane and his former medical school colleague Fettes whom he pressurises into support with the threat of revealing their sordid past paying for stolen corpses. For this reimagining, The Body Snatcher would stress Macfarlane more by having Gray as his malevolent supplier (a combined Burke/Hare to his Dr Knox in effect). This creates a gripping high-stakes dilemma of forced secrecy upon MacFarlane and a complex deep-seated relationship between the two men.
The production was on securer ground with its casting. To play the scheming McFarlane RKO wisely cast Henry Daniell, a renowned go-to figure for a particular type of British sneaky epicene villainy - so much so that Christopher Guest’s preparation for his marvellous Count Rugen in The Princess Bride (1987) was to study Daniell’s Lord Wolfingham from The Sea Hawk (1940). By contrast, wholesome junior doctor Fettes is Russell Wade, a Lewton company player whom you may recall was the fleeting near-saviour to the ladies in The Leopard Man (1943), then awarded a lead hero role befitting his innate decency persona in The Ghost Ship that year.
Although Wade is a little stiff and over-earnest at times, he has a natural warmth and bedside manner with crippled child Georgina Marsh (Sharyn Moffett) that is crucial in establishing a major theme of the film. The difference between his humanity and MacFarlane’s frosty professionalism that she is unresponsive to emphasizes that medical treatment needs to more than just clinical knowledge for the patient to respond. The doctor must have a feeling for healing as it were. (Much later Fettes will sum up his mentor’s shortcoming: “But he couldn’t teach me the poetry of medicine”).
Someone else equipped with a kindly soul is Mary Gordon’s Mrs McBride, an early mourner unaware of the post-mortem use made of her son. Gordon was best known as housekeeper Mrs Hudson in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. Her buried boy also becomes a neat opportunity for another ‘true’ Edinburgh character to be woven into the tale. Greyfriars Bobby was a Skye Terrier who famously (if real) spent the last fourteen years of his life till 1872 sitting atop the grave of his dead master John Gray refusing to leave. Since Karloff’s part only shares the same name, this was perhaps enough to connect the two – other than the scene where Gray relieves Bobby’s duty with a fatal spade blow but fortunately for dog-lovers this is off-camera.
It isn’t only a legendary pooch that’s ignominiously snuffed out in The Body Snatcher. Horror fans seeing the poster expected another Karloff-Lugosi team-up - it occurs but merely served to highlight the disparity between the two friends’ respective statuses by then. While Karloff revels in his lead part, blackmailing Daniell with lascivious glee and wicked grins, Lugosi is merely spotted a couple of times eavesdropping on the periphery of events as medical school janitor Joseph. When he and Karloff finally do cross paths so Joseph can extort cash from him, Karloff gets to hog the scene, leading Lugosi a merry jig of ghoulish seduction much to Joseph’s under-written bemusement: “I don’t understand the song…” The only dignity really accorded Lugosi is that his suffocation by Karloff is held for impact while the combatants are artfully half-lit by Lewton’s house cinematographer Robert de Grasse.
De Grasse’s work on the film is imaginative enough to draw attention to itself in the best way. Coupled with Terry Kellum and Bailey Fesler’s eerily effective sound design, the murder of the Street Singer (Donna Lee) scene for example shows what can be achieved with simplicity rather than banality. We hear the lonely echo of Gray’s horses’ hooves underscoring her ditty as the camera watches his carriage following her through the archway. The shot doesn’t take us any further in, swallowing the arch in shadow. The take continues, leaving us hanging helplessly – then suddenly her voice is cut off – no scream, just abrupt silence. How easily a life may be extinguished anonymously in the big city.
The most interesting aspect of The Body Snatcher is the bond that unites MacFarlane with his ever-present nemesis. While the doctor is sickened by the ongoing need he has for Gray’s nocturnal excavations, the latter gains a perverse strength from their relationship that he will never give up. He cannot resist the constant taunting of ‘Toddy’ because without the blackmail grip he has upon him Gray is just a lowly working cabman, and yet: “As long as the great Dr MacFarlane jumps to my whistle I am a man”. He is possessed of more than incriminating history though about the anatomist. That piercing gaze of Karloff shrewdly penetrate his employer’s soul, echoing Fettes when he says “There’s a lot of knowledge in those eyes – but no understanding”.
A sense of inexorable doom shackles these two partners in crime together, a Gothic dread that will suffocate them as much as their own victims. Rita Corday’s Mrs Marsh see it with the second sight of the ancient Highlanders; her prophecy to Fettes drips with nightmarish Gothic imagery: “The pit yawns for them”. Evocative period lines like this balance an awkward faux-Scottish tendency throughout the script – variations on ‘Aye lassie’ etc - that clang like shortbread tins out of the mouths of the firmly English and American-accented cast.
Sure enough, the foretold retribution comes to pass and with a startling resolution payoff thanks to powerful direction and de Grasse’s stunning lighting. Cleaving to Stephenson’s ending, MacFarlane takes over the body-snatching with Fettes as his unwilling assistant and is horrified to discover that the female body they’ve dug up is actually Gray. “Never get rid of me” his voice teases from beyond the grave. As MacFarlane drives the carriage through lashing rain, Gray’s corpse then falls over him just as a lightning flash hits; his body glows with almost supernatural phosphorescence in a grotesque parody of a ghost haunting his ex-partner. No wonder MacFarlane takes the low road – to a fatal crash. A pulse-pounding conclusion to a well-told tale.
As such fertile burial ground for horror, the grisly story of Burke and Hare’s nocturnal enterprises has since been remade by director Freddie Francis as The Doctor and the Devils (1985) and by John Landis with Burke and Hare (2010) starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.
Wednesday, 11 October 2017
Having allowed producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to craft an unexpectedly original horror tapestry with 1943’s I Walked with A Zombie, RKO promptly trampled upon it with the muddy paws of crude comedy. It must have been hugely dispiriting for these creative talents to see their studio disrespect the property (over which they had no control) by making a dumb unofficial sequel with no regard for quality or continuity. In fact the only shared elements connecting that film to Zombies on Broadway (1945) were the fictional location and two of its cast in similar roles, neither of which were handled as effectively as by Tourneur and Lewton. The addition of Bela Lugosi does no favours for him either.
Former Laurel and Hardy feature director Gordon Douglas, whom we last saw helming the weak Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944), was put in charge of this silly quickie. The script was adapted by Lawrence Kimble and Robert E. Kent from a short story by Robert Faber and Charles Newman - beggaring belief that a total of four men worked on this.
The excuse for voodoo ado here is the attempts by two knucklehead press agents to come up with a real life zombie to promote the opening of the Zombie Hut nightclub owned by New York ‘ex’-gangster Ace Miller. Jerry Miles and Mike Strager are played by Wally Brown and Allan Carney, a sub-Abbott and Costello pairing who certainly have energy to burn but also witless dialogue deserving of the same fate. The collection of grey-fedora’d Central Casting wise-guys leaning on them, led by Sheldon Leonard as Ace, leaves them in no doubt as to the cement overshoe fitting awaiting them if they fail.
A quick fact-finding mission to the museum hooks up these dumb-bells with balding curator Professor Hopkins (Ian Wolfe whom we recently saw in 1944’s Murder in the Blue Room). He recommends they travel to the Virgin Island of San Sebastien to meet with rumoured zombie experimentalist Professor Paul Renault though with a caveat about his sanity: “I don’t think he was crazy – not very crazy anyway”. Take a wild guess as to who this will be.
Once on the island Jerry and Mike are immediately greeted by the first inferior echo of I Walked with A Zombie with the melodious calypso voice of Sir Lancelot. His lyrics perform the same Cassandra warning as in the previous film - that if this dim-bulb duo are not careful: “The chance to leave may come too late / And blood on de ground will mark their fate”. Not the best tourist greeting to be sure and the only glimpse we have of this dignified gentleman.
As so often happens with Lugosi parts, we meet the Hungarian fallen star up to his neck in lab paraphernalia at his castle ranting about his stymied world domination: “How can the natives do vith their silly voodoo vot I cannot accomplish by scientific means?” he bleats. His victims inconveniently keep returning to post-zombification life and then a second death before he can get any megalomaniac missionary work done. Lugosi is once more confined in the movie to channelling his standard medical white-coated whack-job, albeit accessorising a western tie to resemble a clinical Colonel Sanders.
Renault’s need for secret recipe ingredients prompts the appearance of our other Lewton alumni Darby Jones whose presence was so indelible as the eerily impassive zombie Carre-Four striding through the cornfields. This time around, his entrance as Renault’s entranced slave Kalaga is calibrated for credibility subtraction by protruding from an unconvincing brick wall in a motor-assisted sliding coffin. As with all the zombified actors in Broadway, I would guess Jones’ glassy staring eyes were something like super-imposed half ping-pong ball prosthetics over his closed eyelids. However the effect is achieved it does give off a genuinely unsettling expression amongst the cast members who undergo transformation. What helps less is an odd stiffness to his physicality when walking in this film which looks artificial and unthreatening rather than disturbing.
RKO’s security in the field of musical comedy peeps out intermittently through the film. Not only do we get a couple of song and dance numbers shoehorned into the New York club scenes but there is an excuse for one to introduce the female lead, the personable Anne Jeffreys as Jean La Danse. Jeffreys was a skilled singer-dancer who never made it to A-features yet is known for playing love interest Tess Trueheart in the Dick Tracy films, one of which, Dick Tracy Vs Cueball, we will discuss here when we come to 1947. Jean is a lively and spunky heroine, not least due to her unerring accuracy with the knife-throwing built into her act. Her character offers to help the metropolitan goons find their man in return for safe passage off the island.
Amidst the falling masonry of bad lines there are some frankly bizarre comedy misfires such as in Jerry and Mike’s meeting with Renault. He is singularly unimpressed by their name-dropping of Professor Hopkins – “I hate him!” – and his dismissal of his man-servant Joseph’s cover story (Joseph Vitale) is a gag that goes off like a bad egg. Claiming his research is to cure coconut blight:
“He said it was a banana blight”.
“Oh Joseph is colour-blind”.
Mike narrowly manages to beat the audience into glassy-eyed stupefaction after he is kidnapped by Kalaga and rendered into zombiedom by Renault. His unblinking, frog-like stare genuinely does unnerve when combined with a fixed grin.
Lugosi must have felt a rictus grin of his own forming with what is expected of him in this farrago. At one low point he is forced to engage in a homicidal hide-and-seek with a dagger in and out of his cabinet drawers in pursuit of a cheeky macaque monkey. He does what he can to at least give value for money savouring the more ghoulish absurdities; his explanation of Mike’s suspended animation state is a big slice of ham with relish: “To put it more simply – he is a SAARMBIE!”
By the climax, Renault is clubbed to death by Kalaga, freeing our zeroes to make it back to New York and try to pass off Mike as the zombie publicity stunt on opening night. Inevitably he suffers the same reversion to normal as all the other victims, but Jean had the presence of mind to steal a syringe of Renault’s serum. They finish up solving the threat of Ace’s mob repercussions through the comeuppance of turning him into his own zombie act – and not before time.
Needless to say, Zombies on Broadway is seriously bad ju-ju.
Tuesday, 10 October 2017
The beginning of 1945 brought horror fans a posthumous tribute to a notable actor who had died too young and with much promise left unfulfilled - most poignantly perhaps to himself. As we saw with 1944’s The Lodger (see my review of 3/6/2017) Laird Cregar was a talented character actor of imposing build who was tragically uncomfortable with the disparity between his appearance and the self he yearned to project. He saw himself as a romantic lead and while this may have seemed delusional to cruel doubters, if he’d been born later in the century he may well have benefitted from the shift in perceptions that allowed previously ‘unlikely’ sex symbols to emerge such as the diminutive Dustin Hoffman or the overweight, unprepossessing yet gifted charm of Gerard Depardieu. Sadly, it was not enough for Cregar to dream in quiet frustration. He carried out a disastrous plan, without medical supervision, to crash-diet a third off his formidable size down to the sleek lines of the suave matinee idol of his mind’s eye – with fatal consequences.
The role that triggered Cregar’s self-sculpting was the psychotically murderous pianist George Harvey Bone in Fox’s Hangover Square, a meaty part which many actors would kill for, never mind within. He however feared it simply prolonged the large man of menace pigeon-holing he was so desperate to escape. After initially refusing it, the studio’s iron-clad contract forced him to renege; thus, since he couldn’t change the part, he decided he would change himself.
Hangover Square is a strong psychological thriller about homicidal compulsion, often labelled a film noir, and Fox gave it a handsome treatment. It had much in common with The Lodger, reuniting director John Brahm with Cregar and co-star George Sanders. Both actors were engaged again in a battle between good and evil at the dawn of criminal psychology. Here Sanders oozes his trademark poise not as a police officer but as a psychiatrist, although the difference is negligible since after a consultation with troubled Bone he immediately tips off a police superintendent (conveniently waiting in an adjoining room!) to have plainclothesmen tail this potentially unstable chap. Incidentally, Sanders replicates his suave opportunism with the ladies by once more flirting with the central lady concerned, in this case Bone’s girlfriend Barbara played by Faye Marlowe. (Forties filmmakers were clearly inspired by a familial quality here – it’s amusing to note that Sanders real-life brother Tom Conway crosses the same doctor-patient boundary as an urbane psychiatrist in 1943’s The Seventh Victim).
Bone’s problem is that he is a highly-driven composer and pianist plagued with unfortunate mental blackouts for long stretches during which he cannot account for his actions. We however can; Barré Lyndon and Marian Spitzer’s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 1942 play begins by showing Bone stabbing to death an antique dealer in a striking point-of-view. Unlike The Lodger there will be no mystery about the killer’s identity in this film – instead it’s a portrayal of a man’s mind unravelling under the increasing torment of his hidden tendencies.
Events are played out against the backdrop of an Edwardian London period only a few years after the Whitechapel of 1888 used in the previous film and is well realised by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle and art directors Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler. Fox even blessed the production’s music with a terrific and inventive score by maestro Bernard Psycho Herrmann. Whenever Bone suffers one of his psychotic episodes of compulsion, the soundtrack switches to shrill pipes to emphasis his discordant inner state as his vision swims in milky confusion. Reputedly Stephen Sondheim credited Herrmann’s work here as a great inspiration for his equally Guignol-esque classic Sweeney Todd.
Supporting Cregar and Sanders there is a nice contrast between Marlowe’s winsome and guileless Barbara and the conniving gold-digger chanteuse Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell) who would be hard to resist if we didn’t know she is constantly feathering her own nest at poor Bone’s expense. Sanders’ Dr Middleton had advised the tormented Bone to find “some other emotional outlet” besides music. Notwithstanding his nocturnal hobby of sleepwalking murder, Bone is distracted even more from such counsel by Netta’s manipulation of him to write her hit songs whilst stringing him along with the promise of wedding bells.
It’s a measure of Cregar’s skill that he never loses our sympathy for his character despite attempting to throttle the undeserving Barbara in the throes of his red-mist rage and actually killing his own Siamese cat (mercifully off-camera). Whilst investing Bone with a haunted, sad-eyed depth of feeling he has that effortless likeability reminiscent of the similarly-framed Stephen Fry. It’s a shame he didn’t recognise that his voice’s beguiling softness of tone was also a valuable instrument for offsetting aspects of his appearance that he disliked.
Of course what helps us to side with the character is when Bone finally gives Netta her comeuppance with the aid of a knotted curtain sash, strangling her in the style of the Indian Thuggee cult and disguising her as a Guy Fawkes dummy to burn atop the community bonfire on November the fifth. This scene may have been slightly mystifying to American audiences unfamiliar with this British celebration.
On this subject there are a couple of comic cultural moments for British viewers caused by concessions made to Transatlantic moviegoers. Bone gets the idea for Netta disposal after he is besieged by a gang of street urchins wheedling the traditional ‘money for the guy’ out of him. Their dialogue is delivered (or dubbed) by the most charmingly well-spoken Cockneys you’ll ever hear: “He’s a bit of alright!” – “How splendid! A shilling!” - as though they’re dodging Eton housemasters rather than the workhouse. This reverse Dick van Dyke experience goes one better later on. Listen out for the lovely satirical swipe made by a passing newsvendor who, with unusually clear enunciation, calls out: “They can’t find the body. Police at their ruddy wits’ end as usual”. Bonus gems like this make writing about old horror movies priceless.
Eventually Bone has to face the music - literally so when Alan Napier’s Sir Henry Chapman sponsors a first concerto performance by him. Although Bone has spent almost the entire film untouched as the world’s most obvious murder suspect, in the end he cannot outrun himself. To his credit, Dr Middleton predicts this and tries to stem the inevitable psychopathic dam-burst: “Listen, my friend, you’re out of balance”. Bone locks the shrink in a cupboard by way of reply and heads off to his host’s place. As he begins to play the planned concert, suddenly all those terrible deep-frozen memories thaw into a wave of horrific self-realisation. The dark doom-laden feel of his work doesn’t help, signalling a turbulent soul crying out for release as the same fingers that extinguished life hammer the keys. At times like this, one can see why pianists are such ideal tortured performers in horror movies. It wouldn’t be the same somehow if he played the tuba.
As if hearing a musical confession, the police and the freed Middleton interrupt the concert, forcing Bone into a confrontation that leads to a flaming fate of going down playing as the wrecked house burns around him. “It’s better this way” soothes Middleton to Barbara, having settled his bill by way of female companionship.
The legacy of Cregar’s drastic weight loss down to 200 lbs for Hangover Square ultimately taxed his heart and stomach. Sadly he did not survive a resulting operation and died two months before his last film’s release - on December 9th 1944. In his desperate desire to chase one elusive image, he denied audiences the chance to see him illuminate many more (Javert in a scheduled film of Les Misérables for director Brahm again and a possible Henry VIII on stage) - roles which would have been eagerly awaited precisely because of the qualities uniquely radiated through his imposing stature - if only he could have found peace with himself. Although he was determined to be a thinner man, Laird Cregar left us as a burgeoning young talent much too soon.
Monday, 9 October 2017
In February 1945 Poverty Row studio PRC released Fog Island, a variation on the well-trodden formula of The Cat and the Canary in which shady potential beneficiaries, gathering to hear what they can grasp from the will of a benefactor, are stranded in the owner’s house and set tasks before their inheritance. The change here is that the protagonist assembling the avaricious is very much alive. Leo Grainger (George Zucco) is an ex-convict nursing a long resentment following five years spent in a penitentiary as a result of their betrayal. His proposed guests were all investors in business dealings of his that he teases may have yielded a huge sum years later. He is confident in the lure of greed as within their cabal he knows that his treacherous secretary Sylvia (Veda Ann Borg) squealed on him to the authorities and that the group murdered his beloved wife.
If you think that’s a hefty slab of exposition cake to digest, it’s actually served up like this by poor Zucco to his step-daughter Gail (Sharon Douglas) in the first five minutes of Pierre Gendron’s screenplay - based on the stage play by Bernadine Angus. B-movie veteran Terry O. Morse takes the reigns of the ensuing Agatha Christie-style machinations; he was later responsible for directing the American scenes injecting Raymond Burr into the Japanese original Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954), retooling it to great success for the U.S. market.
Here, the action is much less subdued than city-demolishing monsters but makes an adequate whodunnit mystery. Having discharged himself of the back story ballast, Zucco the beady-eyed, bald eagle of low-budget horror acquits himself suitably. Along for the ride as his chief suspect is Lionel Atwill channelling his best urbane cad as Alec Ritchfield, Grainger’s former business partner. An equally dubious fellow invitee is Grainger’s fake astrologist Emiline Bronson (Jacqueline DeWit); we know she’s a phoney partly because she sports a tell-tale shiny turban and also when we see her pass off information she gleans from her own invite as part of her paranormal gift when talking to Alec. Sylvia is a necessary component as is the thunder-faced Dr Lake (Hollywood costume epic stalwart Ian Keith) and Jerome Cowan’s shifty Kavanaugh who in common with the rest is on his guard against Grainger: “Five years in a penitentiary can do a lot to a man”. The supporting cast on the whole play their parts with functional if nondescript professionalism. Half-Swedish Borg had by now overcome 1943’s Revenge of the Zombies and the long ago inadvertent clanger of her 1936 Paramount modelling contract labelling her in the press as a ‘former New York and Boston manakin’.
One unexpected wild card for puppet-master Grainger is the arrival of John Whitney’s Jeff Kingsley (son of shady confederate Jefferson who Grainger didn’t know had died. Fortunately for Gail, he opted to come to reignite an almost-romance with her from their college days, that is if he can get beyond her hard-to-get haughty act.
Once the conniving crew are together, Grainger smugly informs them that the ferryboat is gone for the night and without telephone access they must spend the night as his guests in forced puzzle-solving while he determines to identify the culprits for his “retribution”. Hints are doled out in the form of clue objects such as a knife, a chisel, a book of multiplication tables and a key. This is the catalyst for a passable game of dishonour among thieves as the group members team up and double-cross each other in pursuit of the rumoured reward.
In private, Grainger buttonholes Alec with the direct accusation of killing his wife in a highlight of cackling glee that underestimates his evil opponent: “You’ve signed your own de-“ he burbles as Alec signs his instead and dumps his body through a secret room’s trap-door.
Ultimately, an unholy foursome of Kavanaugh, Alec, Sylvia and mystic bullshitter Emiline unite to crack the code, giving Grainger and us the satisfaction of seeing them take a chest that rewards them with nothing but triggering a closing door to seal them in a watery tomb. Meanwhile Jeff and Gail find the real loot, a box of her mother’s jewellery and a poignant note exonerating her step-father of any blame as well.
Seeing the evil quartet suffer the throes of Grainger’s vengeance from beyond the grave would have made a strong ending whilst the lovers leave, but the resolution’s impact is weakened by having Jeff unnecessarily go off to discover the drowned corpses first. A mist opportunity...