Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Reginald Le Borg, 1944
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Jean Parker, Paul Kelly, Acquanetta

After enjoying the second Inner Sanctum mystery, Weird Woman, far more than I expected, I really tried to like this third entry in the series. As one other reviewer put it, (I believe he was quoting the American Gothic book) the series as a whole is “stubbornly underwhelming.” I wish I could find a better, more optimistic way to describe these films, but it’s almost as though Universal purposefully didn’t want anyone to like them. With the combination of an average-at-best director, Reginald Le Borg, responsible for the first three Inner Sanctum films, and star of all six, Lon Chaney, Jr., it’s hard to expect much. 

Dave Stuart, an artist, is accidentally blinded by his model, Tanya, which ruins his life and career. His fiancée’s father offers to donate his eyes to Stuart (!!!) upon his death, so that Stuart can get an eye transplant operation. Soon after, the man drops dead and Stuart is the main suspect. As with the other Inner Sanctum films, this has basically the same premise. Chaney plays a down-on-his-luck moper who mysteriously (and preposterously) attracts loads of women. Someone is murdered and the evidence points to Chaney, but a jealous woman is usually the real culprit. While this film and Weird Woman have somewhat interesting, imaginative premises, they don’t really go anywhere. The characters are also all completely unlikable from Chaney to his ice cold fiancée and her obnoxious ex-boyfriend. As with Weird Woman, many of the characters are creepy and sexually obsessive -- men and women both -- and we are somehow expected to care about a series of love triangles that typically point the way to the real perpetrator. 

There are some completely ridiculous leaps of reason in the script, such as an eye transplant surgery, which is shown in the cheapest way possible with shots of Chaney’s eyes squinting. Though Tanya is supposed to be guilty for blinding Stuart, he’s the one who kept a bottle of corrosive acid not only on the same shelf as his eye drops, but right next to them. 

Jean Parker (Edgar Ulmer’s Bluebeard) is not quite a replacement for series regular Evelyn Ankers, but she does her best. I think. She at least does a lot better than model-turned-actress Acquanetta (Captive Wild Woman), who is lovely to look at, but has the emotional range and acting skills of a goldfish. It is sadly easy to see how her character could have confused a container of eyedrops with acid. Paul Kelly is believable as Stuart’s doctor and the only likable character on hand, but can’t be expected to save the film on his own.  

 If you’re really curious about Dead Man’s Eyes, you can find it on the two-disc Inner Sanctum collection, though I would recommend a rental above a purchase. It’s certainly one of Chaney’s lesser roles, though that isn’t saying a lot. Son of Dracula, here's looking at you.


Reginald Le Borg, 1944
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, Anne Gwynne, Elizabeth Russell

The second Inner Sanctum mystery after Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman is a vast improvement over the last film and actually includes some horror elements, though over all it is still a mystery full of twists and red herrings. Anthropology Professor Norman Reed meets and falls in love with a local woman while he is vacationing in the South Seas and studying their tribal habits, namely their religious rituals. He marries Paula, a white woman adopted and raised by a priestess, and writes a book about the beliefs of her tribe. When they return to his home in the U.S., the other women are jealous of Paula, particularly Illona, who believed Norman was going to marry her. Odd things begin to occur around town and Paula thinks her charms and rituals are the only thing keeping Norman safe. He burns all of her talismans and dolls in an attempt to convince her her beliefs are wrong. Soon after, one of his colleagues is murdered. Is Paula responsible?

Lon Chaney, Jr. again stars and is again the dead weight in this film. The only weird thing about the women in this movie (aside from the fact that one of them is a jealous maniac) is that they are all obsessively in love with Chaney, including a young school girl. This is both laughable and incredibly implausible, but all of the Inner Sanctum films have that feeling of absurdity that will either make viewers hate or enjoy the series. The film is carried by the three main female characters, who put in surprisingly good performances here. The beautiful Evelyn Ankers (The Wolf Man), a Universal regular, has nearly enough presence to carry this film on her own. Anne Gwynne is fittingly daft as Paula, though it is a little frustrating that all the men in town are as obsessed with her as their wives are obsessed with Chaney. One of my favorite, though lesser known actresses from the period, Val Lewton regular Elizabeth Russell (The Cat People, Curse of the Cat People) is given a more robust part here as another professor’s ambitious wife. She feeds into the town’s hysteria for awhile, but has a rare (in the Inner Sanctum universe) reversal and a nice moment of character growth. 

Based on Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, the first half of the film boasts some supernatural elements, though they are a mixed bag. The island scenes where Paula and the village women perform some kind of pagan ritual is absolutely ridiculous and looks like they are at a luau designed for white tourists. On the other hand, the scene where Paula flees in the night to perform a ritual at the local cemetery is atmospheric and delightfully noirish. 

It’s a shame her husband burns all her ritual supplies, including a talisman necklace she has worn since childhood. And that’s one of the real problems with this film: everyone is a complete asshole. Chaney’s character is unlikable and often treats the women around him very poorly. The female characters are either equally awful, hysterical, or outright stupid. The level of hysteria actually adds to the creepiness of the proceedings and I’m grateful that the script was not in a hurry to explain away the supernatural undertones. Though this does happen eventually, it is in a patient, mostly intelligent manner. (Someone is manipulating Paula and the rest of the town by playing to her superstitious beliefs and nearly driving her insane.)

While I can’t recommend this to everyone, it is a nice little murder mystery that borrows from Val Lewton’s far superior, moody, and subtle horror films from the period. It is certainly the best example of the Inner Sanctum films and you can find it on the two-disc Inner Sanctum collection. It can’t compete with Universal’s classic horror films, but it is a pleasant, fun way to pass an hour. Coincidentally, the poster is far sexier and more scandalous than the film itself. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Guillermo del Toro, 2013
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman

A crack has appeared on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and giant, otherworldly monsters known as kaiju begin to emerge and destroy the Earth. To retaliate, humans create the Jaeger, human piloted robots outfitted with a number of impressive weapons. These robots are too demanding for one human to pilot, so a team mentally merges (called Drifting) to pilot the Jaeger and take on kaiju. One of the most celebrated teams, Raleigh Becket and his brother, face off against an unexpectedly ferocious kaiju and Raleigh’s brother is killed. 

Several years later, the kaiju have gotten out of control and the government plans to cancel the Jaeger project and try to build a protective wall near the ocean portal. Commander Stacker Pentecost ignores the order and decides to try a last, desperate attack with the four remaining Jaegers. The fourth Jaeger needs pilots and Pentecost tracks down Raleigh and convinces him to return. They try out a number of potential partners, but Raleigh wants Mako Mori, a young Japanese woman who is the brains behind Pentecost’s project. For unknown reasons, Pentecost does not want her to become a pilot, but time is running out as the kaiju attacks become more frequent and more fearsome. 

I’m a big fan of del Toro, though sometimes I think I enjoy him more as a person and fellow fan than I do as a director. I really liked Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Hellboy (2004), and enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), despite its issues, and was far more entertained by Blade II (2002) than I probably should have been. My biggest issue with him is that I don’t think he’s particularly good at developing characters, a problem that is certainly evident with Pacific Rim

To play devil’s advocate with myself for a second, the movies that inspired Pacific Rim, such as Godzilla and other kaiju films, also don’t traditionally focus on the script and many of the human characters are two dimensional and forgettable. But this is OK because Godzilla films generally focus on one thing: Godzilla and other kaiju stomping the living shit out of things. All those movies ask you to care about are the kaiju and generally unveil scene after scene of fiery destruction. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, does have a lot of robot/monster fight scenes, but focuses precious little on the kaiju and more on the humans. And unfortunately the humans leave a lot to be desired. 

One of my biggest issues with Pacific Rim is the sheer amount of exposition in the first half hour of the film. I respect that del Toro attempted to totally set aside an origin story feel, but this immensely long movie crowded with underdeveloped characters all fighting for screen time would probably have been better served as a two part film. With the sheer amount that happens in the film, it would make sense to further develop a richer, longer story rather than rush everything at breakneck speed towards the conclusion. As a result, we are left with a series of cookie cutter characters, many of whom have absolutely nothing at stake, particularly Raleigh (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), who is one of the two main protagonists. We know almost nothing about him, other than his brother/co-pilot was killed during a kaiju battle several years ago and he has some unresolved trauma. Despite the character’s significant amount of anger, frustration, and unresolved PTSD, he is pretty passive and has absolutely zero character development. This begs the question: Why wasn’t Raleigh called in sooner if he is such an impressive pilot? He gets over his trauma remarkably fast and the script quickly leaves him behind to focus on Mako, his co-pilot. 

I grew up loving Neon Genesis Evangelion and various Gundam series, so it’s nice to see someone do giant robots piloted by humans right, though del Toro is rehashing a lot of what these earlier series have already explored and skimming over the more complex elements. While series like Evangelion and Gundam Wing explore the physical and psychological effects of piloting a massive, weaponized robot, Pacific Rim barely touches upon this and uses it mainly to fluff out back story or provide a character with more obstacles. The Drift, for example, could be a far more powerful tool than it is. Instead it is only used twice, both times to quickly explain a character’s past trauma. Simply giving a character trauma does not equate complexity or development. One of the things Gundam Wing, for example, does particularly well is introduce a lot of characters who pilot these robots and provide them all with varying degrees of depth. They also each have very personal relationships with their robots, effectively humanizing the machines, something Pacific Rim also unfortunately fails to do. 

The pacing of the film - with constant nighttime fight scenes in the rain - destroys any sense of tension or the notion that something (the world) is at risk. Part of the problem is the number of two dimensional characters who are barely present in the film, such as the Russian couple and the Chinese triplets, supposedly bad ass fighter pilots who are killed far too quickly before we can either come to like them as characters or appreciate their skills as fighters. And the names, my god the names. Stacker Pentecost, played by one of my favorite current actors, Idris Elba, is almost completely wasted by the script’s constant attempts to undermine his abilities as commander. Characters frequently disobey or ignore his command, making him ineffective until he steps up to the plate to become a pilot himself. Why doesn’t Pentacost, often shown as a solid, unemotional commander, put Mako, whom he calls his biggest asset, in the fight sooner? The explanation for this (she is his foster daughter) is flimsy at best, as the entire world is about to erupt in apocalypse and Mako would die anyway. 

Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky are decent as the father and son piloting team and Rinko Kikuchi shines as Mako, the film’s true protagonist. I am grateful to del Toro for refusing to sexualize Mako. Instead, he presents her as an intelligent and vital member of the time, as well as being a gifted fighter. Her relationship with Raleigh is troubled, as the film nearly gives them a romantic subplot. Del Toro mostly avoids this, outside of some awkward scenes of her checking out Charlie Hunnam’s abs while he changes his shirt. Fortunately the film leaves things ambiguous and ends with a scene of them hugging, grateful they have accomplished their mission and somehow both survived, instead of relying on a cliched kiss. 

It is nice to see moments of del Toro’s humor, which doesn’t shine nearly as brightly as in Hellboy, but makes a few appearances in the form of Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), as a kaiju-obsessed scientist. While I enjoyed Day’s character, he feels cut into the film and would be more satisfying if he was better integrated into the main plot. His scenes with Ron Perlman, playing black market kaiju parts dealer Hannibal Chau, are some of the most delightful and represent the best dialogue in the film, which is a little unfortunate, considering that they are only side characters. 

The real reason I went to see Pacific Rim was for the creatures, both the kaiju and the robots that del Toro has named “Jaeger.” They all look fantastic and the kaiju veer dramatically away from Godzilla or Harryhausen territory and decidedly more towards the Lovecraftian. It was a little frustrating that they are primarily shown them in the rain, water, or darkness, and their phosphorescence is never explained, but they are still a welcome distance from recent creature features. The Jaeger, though underrepresented, are far more impressive than Michael Bay's awful Transformer films. 

Despite my complaints, Pacific Rim is worth seeing and has been getting rave reviews. As long as you can get past the weak script and sparse, unsatisfying attempts at character development, you will be pleasantly entertained. I thought about deleting my entire review and changing it to say “Giant robots fight giant monsters, what more do you want and what more can you expect?” And to a certain extent, this is very true. 

Monday, July 29, 2013


Reginald Le Borg, 1943
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., J. Carrol Naish, Patricia Morison

The first of a six film series known as The Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Calling Dr. Death shares a number of common elements with the rest of the series, including star Lon Chaney, Jr. and director Reginald Le Borg (The Mummy’s Ghost). The series is based on a very popular radio show and series of the novels of the same name that incorporated elements of horror, mystery, suspense, the supernatural, and a sort of tongue in cheek humor, often with twist endings and mystery stock characters. Unfortunately the radio series far outstrips the film adaptations and boasted voice performances from some wonderful genre actors like Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Claude Rains, as well as the great Orson Welles, among many others. 

Dr. Mark Steele, a neurologist, begins to worry when he has no memory of the last few days, during which his wife was coincidentally murdered and he had a dream about strangling her to death. She had been regularly cheating on him, but refused him a divorce because she enjoyed the comfortable lifestyle ensured by his position as a successful doctor. Steele, who had developed feelings for his nurse, Stella, asks Stella to help him regain his lost memories and help discover his wife’s killer, even if he is responsible. Hypnosis is one of his specialties and he hopes to use it on himself to uncover the truth, particularly after he stumbles across a number of clues pointing to himself. 

Though this is the first film in the series, it is by no means the best, and will probably only interest fans of ‘40s mystery films or Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney is actually my main issue with this film and much of the rest of the series. His limited acting range is often reduced to the same sort of character he had as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man: a sensitive, brooding man who often feels sorry for himself and laments his lot in life. This usually involves a complicated, budding romance with a female character. Certainly the very thin scripts don’t do Chaney any favors and are made more ridiculous by the frequent voice overs. In this film they are supposed to represent Steele’s unraveling psyche as he is slowly reduced to madness by his weekend long blackout and possible involvement in his wife’s murders. 

The lovely Patricia Morison (Kiss Me, Kate and Bell, Book and Candle, among many others) looks great here, but isn’t given much to do and has limited chemistry with Chaney, which would probably be fair to blame on Chaney and not Morison. J. Carroll Naish, another Universal regular, also gives a good performance as the suspicious Inspector Gregg and puts the rest of the cast to shame. 

Many of these films were introduced by a disembodied head floating inside a crystal ball, something that would indicate more elements of the fantastic, the supernatural, or more over the top humor, but alas. Calling Dr. Death, despite its excellent title, is little more than a murder mystery with a hypnotism/amnesia subplot and a twist at the end that predictably involves money and jealousy. It’s not an awful film and is fairly decent despite its pitifully low budget, but it probably won’t interest many fans of classic Universal horror. Some of the huge plot holes and absurd jumps in logic are humorous, but always unintentionally so. 

Calling Dr. Death was followed by five other excellently named titles: Weird Woman, Dead Man's Eyes, The Frozen Ghost, Strange Confession, and Pillow of Death. Chaney stars in all of these and you can purchase them in a two disc collection from Universal, Inner Sanctum Mysteries: The Complete Movie Collection


Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind, 1939
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dorothy Arnold, Robert Kent, Edward Van Sloan

Bela Lugosi stars as the diabolical Dr. Zorka in this 12 part serial from Universal that blends horror, sci-fi, action, and espionage. Zorka creates a number of powerful weapons that he refuses to share with the government. His beloved wife pairs up with his former mentor, Dr. Mallory, to contact military intelligence and inform them of Zorka’s 8-foot killer robot and invisibility belt, among other things. Government agents and foreign spies try to steal his inventions, particularly a box with a meteorite that allows Zorka to attain suspended animation in his enemies. His wife is killed in a plane crash, which drives Zorka over the edge, and he plans world domination and absolute vengeance on those trying to steal his devices. Unfortunately, he is constantly delayed by his hateful and incompetent assistant, a convict named Monk. 

The wonderful tagline obviously promises us more than it will ever be able to deliver, but Phantom Creeps gives it the old college try regardless. “CRASHING... SMASHING... DASHING DYNAMITE! 12 spine-shivering chapters of thunderbolt action and amazing adventure!” The series borrow liberally from some other films of the period, such as The Invisible Ray, from which it steals the powerful, radioactive meteorite concept as well as some actual footage. But Lugosi’s Dr. Zorka goes much farther than many of the other mad scientist films Universal produced during the period, and manages to create a giant robot and an invisibility belt, figures out how to accomplish suspended animation, freezing his enemies in time (a la Charles Xavier a few decades later), and much more. The script was written by George Plympton, also responsible for The Green Hornet, a Flash Gordon film, and the early Batman and Robin

Along with the monsters and robots, Bela Lugosi is the best thing about this series. He seems to completely ignore the fact that he is starring in a B-serial and just gives it his all. The only way the series could be better is if we spent less times with spies, reporters, and G-men and more time with Dr. Zorka. Edward van Sloan, who costarred with Lugosi in Dracula makes a nice, albeit brief appearance as a spy. Dorothy Arnold is the typical nosy female reporter and, like an early Lois Lane, just bogs down the story. 

The first few episodes were covered by Mystery Science Theater, which should give you an idea of exactly what you’re getting into with Phantom Creeps. It’s enjoyable and over the top, but completely absurd most of the time with some really hammy, scenery-chewing performances and a script that obviously revels in its own ridiculousness. 

Speaking of ridiculousness, there are plenty of shots that are obviously stock footage, from fires, explosions, plane crashes, and a particularly unbelievable scene featuring the Hindenburg. But this is the sort of thing that makes it so likable. Almost an early version of Ultraman or The Power Rangers minus any central hero, the series tries to include as much action as possible. There are fight scenes, car chases, numerous crashes, spies, and some sci-fi in the form of Zorka’s many inventions including the delightful robot. Every episode ends with a cliff hanger and the music is so dramatic that it’s difficult not to get sucked in at least a little bit. Star Wars fans will probably be a little surprised to notice the early use of scrolling text at the beginning of each episode to catch audiences up on the story. 

Though originally filmed as a 12 part serial with episodes of roughly minutes, this was later redistributed uncut as what must have felt like a very long feature film for audiences of the time. The original chapter titles are pretty entertaining and are as follows: “The Menacing Power,” “Death Stalks the Highways,” “Crashing Towers,” “Invisible Terror,” “Thundering Rails,” “The Iron Monster,” “The Menacing Mist,” “Trapped in the Flames,” “Speeding Doom,” “Phantom Footprints,” “The Blast,” and “To Destroy the World.” There are a couple of really cheap DVDs available, though the VCI release seems to have the least offensive print quality. 

Friday, July 26, 2013


Lambert Hillyer, 1936
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Beulah Bondi

After Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s excellent first collaboration together, The Black Cat (1932), The Invisible Ray is somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow. Karloff plays mad scientist Dr. Janos Rukh, who has been experimenting with a telescope that looks deep into space, so far it can see into the Earth’s past and project images onto a screen. Rukh and some other doctors he has invited to witness his latest experiment, including Dr. Benet (Lugosi), observe a meteor that hit the Earth far in the past and landed in Africa. Rukh, his neglected wife, Benet, and several others go on an expedition there to find the meteor. Rukh locates it alone and discovers that it has powerful healing powers, but he is exposed to strong doses of radiation first. This makes him glow in the dark, his touch becomes lethal to others, and he starts losing his mind. Benet helps him find a temporary antidote, but it does not keep him stable for long.

Rukh’s wife Diana, ignored for several months, fall in love with Ronald, the nephew of a scientist working with Benet. Meanwhile, Benet decides that Rukh’s discovery must be made public to do the most possible good and he sets up a clinic to help the sick. The combination of feeling like his wife and discovery were stolen is enough to drive Rukh totally insane. He fakes his own death and then goes after the members of the expedition one at a time, his radiation poisoning growing worse all the time. 

This sci-fi horror hybrid has a few interesting things going for it. It is unusual to see a pre-WWII film about radiation poisoning, which would become such a major theme in horror and sci-fi films in the ‘50s. Rukh and Benet's use of the element found in the meteor channeled through a laser prefigures some modern treatments like chemotherapy and laser surgery. It is also odd to see a thoroughly subdued Bela Lugosi, in a side role here as Dr. Benet, exhibiting none of his usual creepiness or scenery chewing. Karloff, on the other hand, is completely over the top and looks absurd with a odd wig flopped on top of his distinguished head. He is also given very little to do here and frenetically paces the set, often doing little more than glowing in the dark. 

Though director Lambert Hillyer did an excellent job with the underrated Dracula’s Daughter, made the same year, his direction here is bland and lifeless. The opening, which bears much in common visually with Dracula’s Daughter, is excellent and starts out in a dark castle in the Carpathians on a stormy night. Rukh’s laboratory setting is impressive, but most of the film is spent in Africa or in Paris (the location of the film’s conclusion). There is very little action and, weirdly, also little dialogue. Rukh is not subjected to radiation poisoning till the half hour mark and he doesn’t kill his first victim until the hour mark. Much of the proceedings are painfully slow going. 

The only real reason to see this film is if you love Karloff and Lugosi collaborations. Lugosi is in fine form and gives a different side of his acting ability here, looking thoroughly debonair. Karloff is unfortunately wasted and very much gives the feeling that he would like to go way more over the top than the script allows. Frances Drake (Mad Love), his forlorn wife, is also good in her limited scenes, though it is difficult to feel sympathy for a character who admits she married someone she didn’t love and spends the first 45 minutes of the film moping and the rest of the film waiting for her husband to go away so she can marry someone else. There are definite shades of the marital issues present in Werewolf of London, which makes sense as both films were penned by John Colton. 

If you want to check out an early example of the kind of sci-fi horror that would take over cinema two decades later, The Invisible Ray is included in the Bela Lugosi Collection. This also has a number of other collaborations with Karloff, such as The Black Cat, The Raven, Black Friday, and stand alone Lugosi film Murders in the Rue Morgue. 


Stuart Walker, 1935
Starring: Claude Rains, Douglass Montgomery, Heather Angel, David Manners

I did not expect to like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished final novel by Charles Dickens, due mostly to my frustrations with Dickens. In high school I read and hated Great Expectations, but I think the problem is that I’ve never been given a proper, adult introduction to the beloved author. His novel Bleak House has long been on my “to read” list and watching The Mystery of Edwin Drood makes me want to read it sooner rather than later. 

A young man, Edwin Drood, has been engaged to an orphaned family friend, Rosa Bud, since childhood, but Drood’s uncle, John Jasper, also has his eye on her. Jasper is the local choirmaster and gives Rosa private music lessons, but his developing obsession begins to frighten Rosa. Jasper also has a secret opium addiction that fuels his perverse fantasies. A pair of half-English, half-Ceylonese (Ceylon is now Sri Lanka) twins, Neville and Helena, arrive and both immediately love Rosa. Rosa befriends Helena and begins to develop feelings for Neville. He and Edwin fight over Rosa and Edwin realizes that Neville loves her in a way he never can. As a result, Edwin breaks off his engagement with Rosa, who is delighted, and they part friends. He goes to make up with Neville and then disappears. Though there is no concrete evidence other than their quarrel and Neville’s bad temper, Jasper blames Neville and suspicion falls on him, though Rosa is sure of his innocence.

With an intelligent script co-penned by Universal regular John Balderston (Dracula), The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a mystery (bet you wouldn't have guessed that from the title) with solid horror elements. Our knowing, or at least suspecting, the identity of Edwin’s killer in no way hampers these elements and it is an exciting race to the finish to see if the murderer will be fully revealed and how Edwin's murder unfolded. There are a number of things for me to recommend here: dialogue, visuals, pace, and performances. The script is quick and witty and brightens up some characters who would normally feel like stock roles. It also manages to include a love story without being reduced to sappy sentimentality. Nearly every character is likable. Claude Rains is incredible as the villainous, yet dualistic Jasper. He is not inherently an evil man, but is driven mad by his obsession with Rosa. It’s amazing that after this and The Invisible Man that Rains wasn’t typecast as a horror star, but his obvious talent shines through regardless of genre. 

Universal regulars Valerie Hobson (Bride of Frankenstein) and David Manners (Dracula, The Mummy) are often forgettable in other horror films, but are at their best here. Hobson is charming and unusually defiant as Neville’s twin Helena. The normally bland Manners is perfect as Drood, a bland and boring character with a good heart underneath and limited enough screen time that he doesn’t become annoying. Heather Angel is perfect as the charming Rosa and manages to rise above the typical female lead found in horror and mystery films from the period. Though not looking remotely half-Asian, Douglass Montgomery is good as Neville and particularly lights up during the second half of the film when Neville appears to flee, but is really in disguise as a wizened old man so that he can solve Edwin’s murder. 

Other than Rains, who is clearly the star of the film, prolific actor Walter Kingsford (The Man in the Iron Mask) steals a couple of scenes as Hiram Grewgious, the man in charge of Rosa’s estate and effectively her caretaker until she gets married. Grewgious has some absolutely delightful dialogue and despite his assertions that he is a cold, boring man, he often sees to the heart of situations before other characters, comes to the aid of Rosa and Neville, and is responsible for much of the film’s comedy. 

Director Stuart Walker, also responsible for Werewolf of London (1935) and Great Expectations (1934), does a wonderful job with the pacing and visuals. George Robinson’s moody cinematography captures storms, spooky forests, the decrepit crypt, and Victorian-looking homes that give this a definite post-gothic, Universal horror feel that intensifies the scenes of suspense. 

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is surprisingly one of my favorite Universal non-monster horror/mysteries and comes highly recommended. It’s certainly not for everyone, but has plenty to offer, some great atmosphere, and is mostly recommended for some wonderful performances. Fans of Claude Rains or Dickens especially need to seek this out. Sadly, it is not yet available on DVD, but you can find it online and hopefully it will be released in a Claude Rains box set sometime soon. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Kurt Neumann, 1933
Starring: Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Paul Lukas

Other than the numerous sequels to The Mummy, which features a character called Kharis instead of Boris Karloff’s Imhotep, Secret of the Blue Room is the first Universal horror film I’ve reviewed for this series that I’ve actually disliked (though The Ghost of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Revenge are almost on that list too). More of a mystery than an outright horror film, Secret of the Blue Room is similar to the Edgar Wallace krimi films that would become popular in Germany in the ‘60s, though it lacks the zany, exploitation elements of these pulpier films. 

Gloria Stuart (from James Whale’s far superior The Old Dark House, made the previous year) stars as Irene, who is having a birthday dinner with her father and three men who want to marry her. (That’s not weird at all...) The youngest is desperate to prove his bravery and impress Irene, so he decides to spend the night in the dreaded Blue Room, a locked up room in the house where several murders were committed years before at 1am. The next morning, he goes missing and they fear the worst. The second suitor locks himself in the Blue Room on the second night and is mysterious shot to death at 1am, with no trace of the perpetrator or gun. Irene’s father calls the police in, who join the final suitor and hide themselves in the room to await whatever dread will befall them.

Since no one in their right mind is going to watch this movie, I think a few spoilers are in order. Though the film tries to throw a few red herrings at us, including a suspicious butler and a car leaving the house in the middle of the night, the culprit is none other than the first suitor. He had the ingenious idea to hide out in the room and kill the other two suitors, leaving Irene all for himself. The third suitor, who is smarter than the first, replaces himself with a dummy and hides out with the police. I’m not sure why, but Universal is full of either bland leading men who do absolutely nothing, or total creeps like the young suitor in this film. 

Base on a German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers (1932), for some reason Universal decided they liked the premise enough to make the film three times. Secrets of the Blue Room was followed by The Missing Guest (1938) and then with Murders in the Blue Room (1944), which is inexplicably a musical comedy that somehow shares the same plot. Director Kurt Neumann made his career with a number of sci-fi films, including one of Vincent Price’s early films, The Fly (1958), but the direction here is as pedestrian and uninteresting as the plot. Even Universal horror regular Lionel Atwill isn’t given much to do here, though he is as creepy as ever, suggesting that after dinner his daughter should kiss each of her suitors, which she does, with some uncomfortable and very public lip-locking three times in a row. To add insult to injury, we never find out what happened in the Blue Room in the first place to make it so “haunted.”

If you want an old fashioned murder mystery, check out the many versions of The Cat and the Canary or The Bat, The Old Dark House, And Then There Were None, or even She-Wolf of London before this. Secret of the Blue Room is not available on DVD, though if you really need to see it, you can find it on YouTube


James Whale, 1932
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton

Based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestly, The first time I saw James Whale’s horror-comedy hybrid The Old Dark House I didn’t have a very high opinion of it. The bootleg print I watched was blurry with constant sound drop outs and fuzzy audio, often making it difficult to really understand what was going on. Plus I had seen a number of other “old dark house” films first, such as Vincent Price movies like House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Bat (1959), and the Agatha Christie-adaptation And Then There Were None (1945), all of which have long been favorites of mine. The title The Old Dark House is a reference to this sort of plot (strangers gathered in an old dark house where violence or murder is afoot), which became popular in the theater and then in silent films of the ‘20s, such as the original versions of The Bat and The Cat and the Canary. I’m glad I recently re-watched The Old Dark House, because (assuming you watch find a coherent print) it is one of James Whale’s most delightful horror films. 

The Wavertons, a married couple, and their friend are forced to seek shelter in a dilapidated Welsh mansion (why does Universal keep using Wales?) during a violent rain storm. The owners of the house, the grumpy Horace Femm and his paranoid, religious sister Rebecca, are reluctant to let them stay, but don’t have much of a choice as parts of the road have washed away. During supper another couple arrive, a portly business man and his chorus girl “friend,” also seeking shelter. Things get out of hand when the mute butler, Morgan, gets drunk and violent. After leering at Mrs. Waverton the entire night, he attacks and nearly rapes her. And then he releases Saul, the Femms’ insane, pyromaniac brother who proceeds to set the house on fire. 

First and foremost, the film benefits from an excellent cast. Though it usually pains me to see Boris Karloff relegated to side roles (no one puts Karloff in the corner), Whale uses him well here as the mute butler and he becomes an increasingly menacing presence. Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) is good as the war veteran friend of the Wavertons, and Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace) and James Whale’s regular leading lady Gloria Stuart are likable as the Wavertons. Stuart is particularly good as Margaret and the almost constant physical threats posed to her help give the film a real sense of danger and menace. 

Actor Charles Laughton, also director of Night of the Hunter and husband of Bride of Frankenstein’s Elsa Lanchester, is excellent as Sir William, the surprisingly complex businessman. Lilian Bond (The Picture of Dorian Gray) is a little obnoxious as the chorus girl, but this is simply part of her role. The real star of the film is Ernest Thesiger. While he was gleefully demented and over the top in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein as Dr. Pretorius, here he is responsible for almost 90% of the black comedy and his delivery is dead on for nearly every line. A classic example is his obvious dislike of Sir William, to whom he says, “Have a potato,” in a voice dripping with malice. 

Horror fans nervous about the talkie feel of many early Universal horror films should not be afraid to check this one out, as much of the dialogue is either witty or contains oddly topical conversation that feel modern and not very dated. Characters bring up such issues as the traumas of WWI, sex, money, mortality, and, surprisingly, discuss atheism in a positive light. One of the craziest characters in the film, Rebecca Femm, is the only truly religious person and it is suggested that her conservative morality is not only a symptom of her mania, but is a product of abuse at the hands of her father and brothers. Many of Whale’s films work to subvert the hetero-normative family structure and this is no different. The film’s primary family is obviously twisted, perverted, and insane, but the seemingly normal married couple is used for little other than to show how quickly Gloria Stuart’s body can be used as an object of derision (from Rebecca) or abuse (Morgan). Whale also seems to mock her on occasion and there is the implication that she brought some of this behavior on herself by oddly choosing to change out of her wet traveling clothes and into a revealing evening gown. She changes into the dress after Horace explicitly warns her that Morgan will probably get drunk and violent and that he is seriously concerned for her safety. 

Though The Old Dark House didn’t do particularly well in the U.S. box office, it was popular in England and his since become a beloved cult film. The movie was believed to be lost up until almost 1970, when a print was discovered in Universal’s vaults and restored. The film comes highly recommended and is available in a lovely DVD release from Kino, which includes a commentary from Gloria Stuart, a second track from James Curtis, Whale’s biographer, and some other special features. There is also a remake of the film from William Castle in 1963, though this version is completely different. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

THE RAVEN (1935)

Lew Landers, 1935
Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews

After Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), this is the last film in Universal’s loose Edgar Allen Poe trilogy starring Bela Lugosi. It also effectively ended Universal’s reign of interesting, violent, gruesome, and mostly pre-Code horror films. After the shocked audience reaction to The Black Cat and The Raven, Universal turns their backs on serious horror and spent the rest of the ‘30s and early ‘40s making silly, derivative classic monster sequels and mild, mystery-horror features. 

A genius surgeon, who also happens to be completely mad, is obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe and has turned his mansion into a Poe shrine, complete with an extensive torture chamber in his basement based on objects from Poe’s stories. A Judge’s beloved daughter, Jean, a dancer, was in a terrible car accident and her father begs Dr. Vollin (Lugosi), to save her. After some pleading he agrees, succeeds, and she is even able to dance again. Unfortunately for her, Vollin becomes obsessed with her and takes her gratitude to mean something more, even though she is engaged. Jean’s father, the only one who suspects Vollin’s real intention, confronts him. To get revenge, Vollin invites them all for a dinner party, where they are forced to spend a horrific night. 

In the meanwhile, Bateman (Karloff), an escaped convinct, contacts Vollin and begs him to do facial surgery. He has given up his life of crime and wants to start fresh without the police on his trail. Vollin uses this to his advantage and disfigures Bateman with the condition that he will perform corrective surgery if Bateman agrees to torture and murder Joan and her family. Bateman is horrified, but has no choice but to agree. When the dinner party is over, Vollin and Bateman begin separating the guests and have something special planned for them, including torture on the device from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” being crushed to death, and other exciting things. Will Bateman save Joan or leave her to her hideous fate?

This is one of Lugosi’s finest performances, though he is completely over the top for the second half of the film. His frequent giggling will either unnerve or annoying viewers, as the cause of his glee is irrepressible excitement about torture. His performances in Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and this film all certainly develop a common theme: the creepy old man barely concealing his unbridled and obsessive lust. The other actors are fairly decent, though it is difficult to watch Karloff in such a second tier, degraded performance as Bateman, a man who showed up in the wrong place at absolutely the wrong time. There are also some unfortunate moments where Vollin reveals the results of Bateman’s facial surgery and Karloff reprises some groans and arm movements right out of Frankenstein

Lester Matthews as Jean’s clueless fiancé is better here than in Werewolf of London, though he still falls under the bland leading man umbrella that Universal used so often. Samuel S. Hinds (Man-Made Monster) as Jean’s father is unfortunately not very memorable, though it’s impossible to compete with Lugosi. Irene Ware is decent as Jean and is given a little more to do that the typical Universal horror heroine. She choreographs a very bizarre Poe-themed dance in Vollin’s honor and actually flirts with him a few times (as Helen Chandler does with Lugosi in Dracula), though it’s frustrating that the script couldn’t have given her a little more agency, or, alternatively, had something horrible happen to her. I don't think '30s audiences would have tolerated that, though. 

Vollin’s delightfully spooky mansion is almost a character of its own with tons of Poe-themed elements. The basement torture chamber is a wonder to behold and it’s a shame we couldn’t have spent a little more time there. In a certain sense, though, it’s refreshing that so much insane violence is implied, but never shown. This film certainly could not be made today without either turning into an Abominable Dr. Phibes rip off or another boring torture porn. 

While I enjoyed this film very much, mostly because of Lugosi’s bombastic performance, please keep in mind that this is a horror film from 1935. The pace is relatively slow, there is little in the way of overt terror or even the moody atmosphere of other Universal horror films like The Wolf Man or Lugosi and Karloff's The Black Cat. It is difficult to recommend the film without that warning, but I still think there is plenty to enjoy about The Raven and a lot that will likely surprise Lugosi fans who have only seen Dracula or some of his more staid efforts. The film is available as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection along with The Black Cat (1934), Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. Also, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price film The Raven (1963), though that is also loosely inspired by Poe's famous poem. 


Robert Florey, 1932
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Arlene Francis

Loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name, Lugosi stars as Dr. Mirakle, a crazed scientist determined to find the perfect mate for his ape friend Erik. They perform in a carnival together and Mirakle is attempting to find a pure, virginal woman to turn into an ape hybrid for the murderous Erik. Mirakle and Erik meet the lovely young Camille and her fiancé Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective. Mirakle becomes obsessed with acquiring Camille for Erik, while Dupin notices that a number of female bodies that appeared to be drowned have been injected with something suspicious. Camille is kidnapped and though the police won’t believe Dupin, he knows Mirakle is responsible and rushes to find her before it’s too late. 

Though first ignored at the box office, this has become a cult classic over the years and represents an interesting example of pre-Code horror. There are some excellent moments in the film, namely Lugosi’s scenes, the opening sequence at the carnival, and the horrific scene where Mirakle brings a prostitute home and ties her to a cross in his dingy laboratory, torturing her when he discovers she does not have “pure” or virgin blood. (I imagine happening across a virginal prostitute has a statistic of something like one in a million, at least in Britain or the U.S.) This is Lugosi’s immediate follow up to Dracula (1931) and he essentially plays the opposite role. Instead of the smooth, slow-paced, aristocratic count, Dr. Mirakle looks and acts utterly insane with wild hair, crazed laughter, and a disturbing sexual desperation that would prefigure some of his next films with Boris Karloff, such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). 

Other than Lugosi, the performances are average at best. Sidney Fox only acted for five years until her death from a sleeping pill overdose, but she is beautiful here. It’s a shame Universal films from this period had little in the way of variety for leading ladies. Camille is essentially the squealing, shrieking, needing-to-be-rescued variety you would expect. Leon Ames is very likable as Pierre Dupin, as long as you take his character at face value and don’t expect the literary Dupin, Poe’s reoccurring detective. 

For the excellent cinematography, director Robert Florey with with Karl Freund, director of The Mummy and cinematographer of Dracula, among many other films. Freund, who got his start in Germany before emigrating to the U.S. and being hired by Universal, gives this a German expressionist feel that is excellent in many scenes, but seems like a sort of budget version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at times. The concluding rooftop scenes look particularly cheap. While Florey's Paris is generally impressive and atmospheric, it’s a little baffling that none of the supporting cast (detectives, soldiers, townspeople) even attempt to have French accents. This occasionally lends itself to comedy, particularly in a scene taken right from Poe where a few murder witnesses argue about what language they heard. Though this scene is quite funny (probably not what Poe intended), the rest of the comedy often feels lazy or forced. 

I really hate apes. I hate men in ape suits. With the single exception of King Kong, it’s really difficult for me to get through a horror movie where one of the main antagonists is a monkey. There is no exception here and Erik the Ape is often unintentionally funny and always ridiculous looking. The film slows down in the second half, when Mirakle becomes less of a presence and Erik takes over, because to no one's great surprise his violent, murderous ape strangles him to death. The conclusion, where Dupin chases Erik across the rooftops of Paris, is outright laughable. 

If you enjoy early horror with silly dialogue, nonsensical scripts, and elements bordering on the surreal, Murders in the Rue Morgue is for you. Don’t expect the serious mystery elements of Poe’s story, which is essentially a one trick pony. A body is found in a locked room several stories off the ground and after lots of deduction, Detective Dupin figures out that the guilty party was an orangutan. What probably seemed exciting at the time is now just ridiculous and I can see how Florey was forced to go with the wacky script for Murders in the Rue Morgue rather than something more serious. There is still a surprising amount of violence and even though the film was pre-Code, Universal allegedly cut almost 20 minutes from the original print. The film is available as part of the Bela Lugosi Collection along with The Black Cat (1934), The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday


Jean Yarborough, 1946
Starring: June Lockhart, Don Porter

Though other reviewers have mostly rained hatred down upon She-Wolf of London, I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the film. The main problem is its title. This is not a werewolf film and it’s better if you completely ignore She-Wolf of London and think of it under its British title, Curse of the Allenbys. This is a murder mystery where the red herring is an age old family curse that allegedly transforms the members of the Allenby family into satan-worshipping werewolves. 

The young Phyllis is a week away from being married when bodies are found with their throats ripped out in the park near her home. She is particularly worried because there are no men in the house and she only lives with her aunt Martha, cousin Carol, and an elderly servant. Her aunt Martha buys a number of dogs that howl all night, scare Phyllis, and keep her awake. Soon it seems she has been sleep walking, as her shoes and nightgown are muddy and later, to her horror, she wakes up with blood on her hands. Since childhood, she has been dreaming about werewolves and witches’ gatherings and fears that she has finally succumbed to the family curse. Her fiancé Barry and her cousin are worried about Phyllis and begin an investigation of her own, while her aunt takes particular care to let Phyllis rest. 

Though this is by no means a true horror film and lacks make up, monsters, or gore, there are some sinister elements. To hear Phyllis talk about her disturbing, reoccurring dreams of lycanthropic transformation helps transcend her whiny, passive character a bit. Though we don’t see the murders in the park, one victim is described as being a young child, and another is surprisingly the inspector who suspects a werewolf is to blame. To have the plucky comic relief (the other detectives and cops mostly make fun of him for being drunk and believing in werewolves) drop dead with a torn out throat is a little surprising. What is with the constant alcoholic humor in Universal movies?

Like a lot of other murder mysteries and horror films from the period, the plot strains credulity at times and doesn’t work too hard to make a lot of sense or explain plot holes. How did Phyllis’s parents die when she was a child? Who told her about the Allenby curse? By the end of the film, you can make an educated guess about these things, but it would help to have a little more back story. Also, why does a police detective take it upon himself to immediately decide a werewolf is to blame? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but if you can ignore some of this and enjoy murder mysteries, She-Wolf of London is a pleasant way to pass an hour and has some particularly lovely visuals reminiscent of The Wolf Man's haunting, otherworldly forest scenes. 

The performances are average, though solid and it is easy to see how far the cast could have gone with a stronger script. June Lockhart (Lassie) is far too timid and paranoid to be really interesting in the main role and she is overshadowed by both Sara Haden as the somewhat sinister aunt Martha and the confident, attractive Jan Wiley as cousin Carol. The somewhat roguish Don Porter is more likable than the average male lead and is frankly leagues beyond the bland David Manners, Universal’s standard leading man for Dracula and a few of their other horror films. 

While certainly not a perfect film, She-Wolf of London has an undeservedly poor reputation due to its wildly inaccurate title and its inclusion in The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection box set, where it clearly does not belong. If you like quickly paced murder mysteries with a minimal amount of chills (along the lines of The Cat and the Canary or The Bat but with less humor) than this will be right up your alley. This also has no relationship whatsoever to the ‘90s TV show She-Wolf of London, which actually has a werewolf in it. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Roy William Neill, 1943
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Ilona Massey, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi

Instead of getting a proper sequel, Universal decided that The Wolf Man should become part of a spin off series that would be known as monster mash up films. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is the first of these and was followed by House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is another loose follow up, though this is a comedy and not a horror film. These films are also supposed to be part of the Frankenstein series, which had already hit the absolute bottom of the barrel with Ghost of Frankenstein, the fourth film in that series.

The monster mash up films really represent the bottom of the barrel for Universal horror. Though at their high points these films are fun and campy, “budget” is often the word of the day and applies to acting, script, set, and effects. In this first outing, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) is awakened from death several years after The Wolf Man by grave robbers pillaging in the moonlight. He rises as a werewolf, goes on a killing spree, and is admitted to a hospital in human form, where he tells the doctors he is a murderer. They just think he’s insane. He eventually leaves, hoping to find Dr. Frankenstein and thus a cure for his immortality. 

The gypsy woman from The Wolf Man (Maria Ouspenskaya) agrees to guide him, though the villagers near Castle Frankenstein are less than helpful. While fleeing from them in wolf-man form, Talbot stumbles across a frozen area below the castle where he finds Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi). They become friends and Talbot hopes the Monster will remember where his creators notes are hidden. Talbot also meets Elsa Frankenstein (the lovely Ilona Massey), the doctor’s daughter, and persuades her not to sell the castle until they can find her father’s research. 

The villagers quickly catch on that Frankenstein’s Monster has awakened and the Wolf Man is about and plan how to destroy them and the castle. Meanwhile, Talbot’s doctor has followed him from England and becomes obsessed with Frankenstein’s research. Instead of killing the Monster and Talbot, he can’t resist reviving the Monster to complete strength, much to Elsa’s horror. The Wolf Man and the Monster face off against each other until the locals blow up the dam underneath the castle and both monsters are swept away. 

Much of the problem with these monster mash up films is that the stories do not flow together and are broken into awkwardly blended segments. While I actually really enjoyed the creepy intro, which involves Talbot’s awakening and imprisonment at a hospital, this feels like two separate films, with Frankenstein’s Monster not coming onto the scene till halfway through. This is a problem with House of Frankenstein as well, which also has an excellent beginning (with Karloff as a mad scientist breaking out of prison), but descends into utter ridiculousness. 

A bit of sad irony with this film is that Bela Lugosi was brought on to play Frankenstein’s Monster. His dialogue was cut and many of his scenes were shot with a stunt man/stand in, resulting in one of his most pointless performances. To make matters worse, Lugosi was originally considered for the part of Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein and then the Monster, which he deemed beneath him, surely his worst career move. He had a good part as the deformed, manipulative Ygor in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein. At the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor’s brain is actually grafted into the Monster, so his final moments in the film involve speaking with Lugosi’s voice. Of course that plot element is completely avoided here (the mash up series completely avoids continuity at all costs), but it does seem horribly ironic that Lugosi was relegated to playing a bargain basement version of the Monster towards the end of his career. Such a physically demanding role surely should have been a younger man’s game and seeing his face under the Monster make-up is distracting. 

Though I enjoyed the opening and nothing about this movie is worse than any of the other Universal horror sequels (not that that’s saying much), I don’t think I would recommend it. Larry Talbot is such a whiner that it’s hard to like his character. There is also an absolutely horrifying scene where the entire village, celebrating some sort of wine festival, breaks into the most annoying song imaginable about how “life is short and death is long.” Understandably, Talbot has a meltdown, but it would be nice to have a scene of him massacring some villagers while in human form. Alas. 

If you feel compelled to watch this, it is part of The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection along with The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London, She-Wolf of London, and some special features. I think both of the monster mash up sequels are superior, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, but they can only be found in Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection and Dracula: The Legacy Collection respectively. I think Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was tacked on to the The Wolf Man box set for sheer lack of other sequels or more special features. 


George Waggner, 1941
Starring: Claude Rains, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers

“Even a man who is pure in heart/ and says his prayers by night/ may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/ and the autumn moon is bright.” -Curt Siodmak

Universal's second werewolf film after the unrelated Werewolf of London (1935) is the first landmark lycanthropy film and writer Curt Siodmak effectively created the werewolf mythology that haunts today’s screens. When Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) learns of his brother’s death, he returns to his home in Wales and attempts to reconnect with his estranged father (Claude Rains). Talbot becomes interested in Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), a young woman who works in a village antique shop. After observing her for awhile basically stalking her, he buys a walking stick adorned with a silver wolf’s head simply so he can talk to her. She tells him about the legend of the werewolf. 

Later that night, her friend is being attacked in the woods by what Talbot thinks is a wolf and he beats it away with his walking stick. Before dying, it bites him, and a local gypsy woman (Maria Ouspenskaya) warns him that the now-dead werewolf was her son (a cameo from Bela Lugosi) and that Talbot has inherited the werewolf’s curse. As she predicted, Talbot transforms into a wolf-man hybrid at night and hunts and murders villagers. He becomes horribly aware that he is responsible for these crimes and longs for death, but is unable to stop himself from transforming and preying upon the woman he loves.

This might not be a popular opinion, but The Wolf Man is one of my least favorite of the major Universal horror films. Partly this is because I love werewolf films and werewolf mythology. It is impossible to deny that we wouldn’t have movies like An American Werewolf in London or The Howling without this film, which established many modern werewolf tropes, but in light of the pre-existing mythology and Curt Siodmak’s brilliant script, I don’t think The Wolf Man takes things nearly as far as they could go. For starters, Siodmak wanted a film about human duality and supposedly his script is full of subtlety and innuendo. In the actual film, almost all innuendo is gone and we never doubt Talbot’s sanity, because we are sure he is a werewolf. 

And speaking of wolves, it has always been a particular gripe of mine that the werewolves in Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, and the monster mash up sequels all basically look like ape men. There is little wolfish about them, something that the destruction of the Production Code and future effects advancements would be able to correct. But here we are either stuck with Chaney’s whining, overly sensitive Talbot, or an ape looking wolf-man covered in yak fur, running around with clothes on. 

The film is undeniably flawed. Considering that Werewolf of London was the dry run and The Wolf Man is basically a do over without the overt Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde elements, you’d think the script would be a little more solid, but Universal in the ‘40s was known for their sloppy and desperate horror films. Siodmak does do a solid job making this film feel as thoroughly steeped in myth as Dracula, though he made most of it up, including the wonderful poem I’ve quoted above. Unlike most of Universal's other horror classics, this has no literary source. Historically, werewolf legend concerns men who purposefully transform themselves via ritual to gain powers of evil and they were most often associated with witches. There is also the connection between serial killers and werewolves with the latter standing as a symbol of man’s inherently bestial nature. The Wolf Man addresses neither of these and I can’t help but feel that the script would have been more interesting if Talbot was more than just a victim of circumstance and had a more active part to play in his own downfall. 

There are also some wonderful elements, namely the fantastic set pieces. The woods are magical. It is obvious those scenes were shot on a sound stage, but it does nothing to lessen their fantastical impact. It is quite clear that when characters are out running around in the foggy, shadowy woods, they have wandered somewhere beyond normal reality. Where the monsters in Dracula and Frankenstein supply their own otherworldliness, something was needed to shift the atmosphere here. There’s also an excellent supporting cast with Maria Ouspenskaya, Claude Rains, a bit part from Bela Lugosi as the first werewolf (he oddly appears as a wolf, not a wolf-man hybrid), and Universal horror regular Evelyn Ankers, who has great chemistry with Chaney. It’s a shame Chaney wasn’t a more compelling, charismatic actor or given a more dynamic part. 

Jack Pierce has some great effects, which allegedly took hours to apply on Chaney and involved a lot of rubber, wigs, hair pieces, and fake teeth to give him an under bite. This make up was based on his design from Werewolf of London, but is more bestial and less restrained than in that film, because star Henry Hull refused to sit for the whole process. Allegedly the look was inspired by P.T. Barnum’s Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy, who suffered from hypertrichosis and had hair growing all over his face. The transformation scenes were accomplished with time lapses and dissolves that took hours to film. 

Though it is not one of my favorites, there is still a reason that The Wolf Man is a classic and it does come recommended. You can find it as part of The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection along with Werewolf of London, She-Wolf of London, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and some special features. Unlike other Universal horror series, The Wolf Man series is not particularly coherent. Werewolf of London is a forerunners of sorts and has nothing to do with The Wolf Man. She-Wolf of London has nothing to do with either and is a murder mystery devoid of actual werewolves. The only real “sequels” given to Chaney and The Wolf Man were a series of monster mash up films: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. These typically face off the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein, along with a mad scientist and are much campier than the earlier Universal horror films. The Wolf Man is also available on Blu-ray in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Stuart Walker, 1935
Starring: Henry Hull, Valerie Hobson, Warner Oland, Lester Matthews

“A werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but a satanic creature with the worst qualities of both.”

Though overshadowed by The Wolf Man (1941), Werewolf of London was Universal’s first werewolf movie and the first feature length werewolf film ever made. It's strange that it is so forgotten alongside the later Wolf Man. Though Werewolf of London is flawed, it has plenty to offer, such as imaginative effects, and it’s slower, talkier elements are also present in other early Universal films hailed as classics like Dracula (1931), which is often little more than a parlor room drama. 

A famed botanist, Wilfred Glendon, travels to Tibet to find the rare mariphasa plant, which blooms by moonlight. When he attempts to collect a sample, he is attacked in the dark by a strange animal. He escapes relatively unharmed, with just a few scratches. Because he’s hugely pompous, he takes the entire plant back to London with him. Back at home, he is desperate to complete his experiments and shuts himself up in his laboratory room, ignoring his lonely wife. Another botanist, Dr. Yogami, approaches him and claims they met in Tibet. He shows an interest in the mariphasa and tells Glendon tales of the werewolf, stressing that the mariphasa is an antidote. Glendon is standoffish and skeptical until, during an experiment, he begins to grow furry and wolfish under the moonlight. He briefly uses the mariphasa until it is stolen from him by Dr. Yogami. Yogami was the werewolf in Tibet who attacked and infected him. He warns Glendon that a werewolf kills the thing it truly loves, and after Glendon kills a girl while in werewolf form, he is desperate to protect his wife, Lisa.

Henry Hull’s Glendon is certainly not the most likable character, something that seems difficult for a lot of horror fans. He ignores his wife, is uptight, self-important, and humorless. His icy character may be hard to sympathize with, but is certainly not out of place in the horror canon. Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and others have played characters like this and it is certainly a horror type that became popular as early as Frankenstein (1931). No one can say Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein is likable in the least and he treat his wife almost exactly the same way in both Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Speaking of the latter, Valerie Hobson reprised her role as the neglected scientist’s wife for this film. Here she is equally two-dimensional, though her blatant flirtations with another man make her hard to sympathize with. 

Part of the problem with Werewolf of London is that none of the characters are particularly likable. Lester Matthews (The Raven), as the rival for Lisa’s affections, is way too old for the role and spends a lot of time pushing himself on her. His actions don’t make it obvious that he would be a better partner for her than Glendon, but at least he’s attentive. Warner Oland does his best as Dr. Yogami, a role allegedly meant for Bela Lugosi, just as Glendon's role was rumored to be intended for Boris Karloff. Maybe their presences here would have made a difference, but Oland is decent. He essentially reprises his token role as the mysterious Asian (he was in several Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu films during the period), despite the fact that he is Swedish. Hello, racism. 

There’s some nice make up from Universal regular Jack Pierce, though credit goes to Invisible Man effects maestro John Fulton. One of the best sequences of the film involves Glendon’s first transformation. Instead of doing what would become the standard transformation process in The Wolf Man, Hull is shot moving between pillars in the night and each time the camera returns to his face, he is more wolfish. Due to Hull’s resistance, the make up was simpler than Pierce intended and Glendon’s werewolf form is often too human-looking. He dons a hat and coat to leave the house and speaks at the end of the film. While a more in depth exploration of this could have enhanced the film, Glendon often feels like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character. Allegedly complaints of the similarities between Werewolf of London and the beloved Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) resulted in the film suffering at the box office. It also explains why Universal took the werewolf story in such a different direction when they rebooted the series with The Wolf Man

The atmosphere is probably the film’s strong point and includes plenty of the German expressionist elements found in Dracula and Frankenstein, such as fog, strange laboratories, shadowy night time settings, and an excellent scene with strange, oversized carnivorous plants. 

The women in the film are interesting, as are the erotic elements. It could be argued that both Lisa and Glendon suffer from sexual issues, as the main struggle of the film is basically her attempt to deal with her husband’s disinterest and try to avoid the temptation of infidelity. The latter sets off Glendon’s werewolf rage once or twice and though (as a werewolf) he threatens his wife and other upper class women of her social stature, he can only ravenously attack and kill a street girl. Even his werewolf aspect represents his ultimate repression when he puts on clothes and reject his animal nature despite his monstrous appearance. 

Other than Lisa, the two main female characters are a pair of older ladies responsible for some teeth grinding comedy, though their appearance certainly lightens the tone of the film at times. They, along with some of Glendon and Lisa’s older, upper class friends, are unapologetically alcoholics and the film is peppered with jokes about alcoholic delirium and their shaky grasp on reality. 

The film is not perfect and aside from the talkiness and occasionally plodding pace, suffers from a number of inconsistencies. If Glendon was a botanist, he would know that night blooming plants are not rare and he wouldn’t have to go all the way to Tibet to find a subject to test on. Of course, the plant is not as important as we are led to believe and is ultimately little more than a MacGuffin. Dr. Yogami, the foreign monster expert of the film, would also know that turning into a werewolf is called lycanthropy, not lycanthrophobia, as he states, which is presumably a fear of werewolves. Nitpicking, I know. 

Overall I would recommend this to fans of early horror who will not be turned off by the measured pace. If you can get past that, there is plenty to enjoy. This neglected film is available on DVD with all of Universal’s early werewolf films as part of The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection set. Probably the most meager of their classic horror collections, this includes The Wolf Man, She-Wolf of London, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as some nice special features. 

Friday, July 19, 2013


Ford Beebe, 1944
Starring: Jon Hall, John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers

While the first two Invisible Man films were distinctly in the horror/suspense genre, the third was a slapstick comedy, and the fourth was a spy/WWII propaganda film, the fifth and fortunately final entry in the series is a revenge thriller. For some insane reason, a scientists tests his invisibility formula on a criminal who has recently escaped a mental institution. The newly invisible Robert Griffin (no relation to the first invisible man) quickly runs off to get revenge on the Herrick family, who he believes betrayed him many years ago. The clearly insane Griffin accuses Sir Jasper Herrick and his wife, Irene, of abandoning him in Africa long ago and leaving him to die. He demands a share of the diamond fortune they found in Africa, which has since been squandered, or a piece of their estate and the hand of their daughter in marriage. After much harassment and abuse, the desperate Sir Herrick agrees that Griffin can marry his daughter — if he can return to visibility.

The rest of the overly complicated plot involves attempted blackmail, Griffin’s growing insanity and paranoia, invisibility testing on animals, and the Herricks' desperation to get their lives back to normal. Robert actually only becomes invisible part-way through the film, so the impetus for his revenge is established early on. Despite this, the plot is an absolute mess, if often hard to follow, and is littered with half-developed characters and no clear main character we are supposed to identify with.

There are many problems with the protagonist, who should be able to carry the film, but really makes it fall apart. Griffin is totally unsympathetic and lacks direction. Is he the protagonist or a villain? Or both as in The Invisible Man? Is his revenge justified? Or is he simply paranoid and crazed? The film never resolves these issue and fails to make him as charismatic and compelling and the first three invisible protagonists. One of the strongest elements of The Invisible Man is that Claude Rains’ character, Dr. Griffin, is utterly insane and yet we root for him anyway. That falls flat with The Invisible Man’s Revenge and the film follows the deplorably low standards of the some of the other Universal sequels (Kharis Mummy films, here’s looking at you).

Despite the fact that it includes a number of recognizable faces from throughout Universal horror, this is easily the worst entry in the series. The supporting cast is made up of lovely Universal regular Evelyn Ankers (Captive Wild Woman), the delightful John Carradine (House of Dracula), who chews less scenery here than normal, Leyland Hodgson (The Ghost of Frankenstein also with Carradine), Lester Matthews (The Raven), among others. Though they all give decent enough performances, the script is simply too confused to take things very far. It is especially frustrating that protagonist Jon Hall played the invisible man in the previous installment, Invisible Agent, though this film is not connected to that one. He also bears the name, Griffin, of the protagonist in the first Invisible Man, though they are completely unrelated in Invisible Man’s Revenge. Cheap move, Universal. 

Speaking of cheap, this is clearly the lowest budget film in the series. Though effects were still carried out by John Fulton, most of the invisibility special effects pale in comparison to the first two, possibly three, films in the series. The use of water to reveal Griffin's invisibility is decent, though I think the best invisibility effects go to the German Shepherd. And as The Mummy’s Ghost has taught us, when the dog is more interesting than the protagonist, you know you’re in trouble. The Invisible Man’s Revenge doesn’t come recommended, but if you need to watch this for some reason, it is included in The Invisible Man: The Legacy Collection set