Thursday, October 31, 2002


Horror films always go in cycles, but they seemed to completely vanish in the 50's; I suppose that sci-fi films became the atom-age version of horror films, but in my mind, the two are really separate genres, at least until ALIEN in 1979. So here are the rest of my favorite horror movies, mostly from the 60's and 70's.

BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)--Reviewed earlier this month; the best Hammer horror ever, even if David Peel is not the best Hammer vampire (that would have to be Christoper Lee in HORROR OF DRACULA). Colorful, creepy, with a fairly interesting twist on the usual vampire story.

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962)--A B-movie for sure, but a masterful mood piece. A car full of girls goes off a bridge and sinks in a river; Candace Hilligoss is the only survivor, but she finds herself unalterably changed by the experience. She seems to go in and out of fugue states, and ghostly figures haunt her. The dialogue and acting leave something to be desired (though Hilligoss is good), but the creepy atmosphere is built up nicely and sustained to a great climax.

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)--Mia Farrow as a young woman who slowly begins to suspect that she has been impregnated by Satan. The movie is most effective as a study in urban paranoia; for most of its length, we're kept in the dark as to whether or not Farrow is really being plotted against by devil worshippers, or is going mad. Ruth Gordon is wonderful as the little old lady next door who may be a ruthless Satanist.

THE OMEN (1976)--Gregory Peck and Lee Remick discover they are raising the anti-Christ. At heart, this has a lot in common with movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH where the main goal is to kill off a bunch of people in freaky ways, but the big budget, big stars, and original (at the time) plotting make it stand out. The first sequel is almost as good, but I've avoided the third one on sound advice of others.

CARRIE (1976)--A socially inept teenage girl with a religious nut case for a mother discovers she has telekinetic powers and, when some mean students plot to ruin her prom night, she strikes back for keeps. This was very early in Brian DePalma's career and I don't think he has topped himself. Scary, funny, sexy, and with one of the truly great horror movie performances, by Piper Laurie as Carrie's crazy mother. She was nominated for an Oscar and should have won. The last 15 minutes or so, from when the bucket of blood falls on Carrie's head to the credits may be the best horror movie sequence ever.

HALLOWEEN (1978)--Since no Ray Bradbury film has yet done justice to his works, this is the quintessential Halloween movie. Jamie Lee Curtis is a babysitter who is stalked on Halloween night by a seemingly invulnerable killer wearing a mask and slaughtering horny teenagers. This was the beginning of a long and tedious trend in horror movies that, unfortunately, shows no sign of letting up; still, it holds up to repeated viewings: great music, great atmosphere, good acting by Curtis and Donald Pleasance, and spectacular murder scenes.

ANGEL HEART (1987)--The convoluted plot is difficult to describe; I remember it took me three viewings to figure things out. Still, even when you're not sure what's happening, the movie is never less than compelling. Mickey Rourke is hired to find a missing war vet and winds up tangled up in voodoo, murder, and a little hot sex with Lisa Bonet that almost got the film an X rating. Another wonderful mood piece that is sustained strongly throughout, with a nicely underplayed performance by Robert DeNiro as a mysterious stranger who may be behind all the death.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)--Do I really need to say anything? Yes, there is too much use of the F-word and the camera is too jiggly and it's hard to care about any of the characters. Still, this fake documentary about three young people who trek out into supposedly haunted woods to find the secret behind some local folklore about a dead witch is absolutely tense and scary. Like CARRIE, it has a killler finale that makes all the ambiguity and tedium that came before worthwhile (even though the ending itself is famous for being ambigious).

There are lots of others I love as well: PSYCHO, THE HAUNTING (the original, not the ludicrous remake), DEAD OF NIGHT, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, THE TINGLER, BURNT OFFERINGS, THE OTHER (the 70's is the only era to rival the 30's for horror film greatness), but I don't have the time to comment on all of them. Tomorrow, I'll be going back to the usual mix of classic movie reviews, but it's been fun to focus on horror, and I may include more of them into the mix in the future.

Saturday, October 26, 2002


As much as I love John Carpenter's original HALLOWEEN, that movie was the death knell for my interest in horror films. After that, the average horror movie basically became an exercise in killing off as many people as possible in increasingly original and outrageous ways. That got old real fast and by the mid-80's, I had quit following the genre. But I still love to watch the older films that relied on atmosphere and understatement, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer. What follows is a list of some of my favorites from the 30's and 40's; I'll do the 60's and 70's later.

DRACULA (1931)--Yes, for most of its running time, this is a stagy, stodgy, awkwardly acted film, and not all that scary. But Lugosi's embodiment of the character of Count Dracula remains indelible. The first 15 minutes or so still work quite well, largely due to great sets, fluid camerawork, lack of music, and Lugosi's eyes. I think this was the first horror movie I ever saw, when I was 7 or 8, and it's still one I revisit at least once a year.

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)--Funny, campy, moving, and great looking. Although the original has its moments, this one is better made and better acted, and gives Ernest Thesiger the role of his lifetime. It's amazing to me how recognizable the Bride's face has become in popular culture, considering she only appears on screen for a few minutes.

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)--One of the best looking and most atmospheric horror movies of all time, reviewed below. Avoid the older public domain tapes and stick with the restored tape and DVD.

THE BLACK CAT (1934)--Despite the title, this has nothing to do with Poe or cats (although there is a black cat getting underfoot occasionally). Karloff and Lugosi square off against each other in a fabulous art deco mansion, with a convoluted plot about war crimes, lust, revenge, and Satanism.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)--Satanism would seem to be colorful material for horror movies, but there have been few memorable films made about it. This one is memorable, even though the Satanists themselves are deliberately bland and resolutely not colorful. It's an effective mood piece about a woman searching for her sister, who has vanished and who may be involved in a devil cult. I don't recall a single "scary" scene here, but the atmosphere of dread hangs heavy throughout.

THE MUMMY (1932) and its 40's sequels--The first Mummy movie, like DRACULA, works best in its first section; the opening remains a classic in letting the unseen scare us more than anything visible could. The acting and dialogue are better here than in DRACULA, and the pace is kept up nicely. As with Elsa Lanchester's BRIDE, we don't really see much of Karloff in his Mummy costume, but he is just as effective with his ancient skin and intense gaze. The sequels are B-movies with shabby sets and silly plots, but they all have their creepy moments.

SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933) and NIGHT MONSTER (1942)--My favorite examples of the "old dark house" genre. I saw BLUE ROOM on Halloween night in the mid-60's and haven't seen it since, but it has stuck in my memory as a good, compact thriller about people accepting a dare to spend a night in a haunted room. NIGHT MONSTER involves a series of murders in a house where a crippled man is being cared for by a group of doctors.

CAT PEOPLE (1942)--The best Val Lewton film, notable for its use of the power of suggestion rather than explicit violence or gore. A woman falls in love, but falls victim to the idea that she turns into a panther when strong emotions like lust or jealousy overtake her. It took me years to figure out that it's really about female "frigidity."

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)--The end of the Universal horror cycle, and it works surprisingly well because a nice balance is acheived between the humor and the horror. I loved A&C when I was a kid, and I don't have much tolerance for them now, but this one still holds up, plus it's by far the best of the movies that incorporate the Big Three Universal Monsters (Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man).

Thursday, October 24, 2002


The first time I saw this was back in the mid-80's on the Nostalgia Channel, a cable network that showed mostly bad prints of public domain movies. It was indeed in bad shape, but the reason for its cult reputation was clear. The current DVD from the Roan Group is, visually, in spectacular shape. Aside from a couple of splices and jumps, it's been restored wonderfully. The print is so clear, you can see the actors' breath in several scenes. The sound is rather dicey, with volume rising and dropping occasionally, and some lines of dialogue are not quite clear. Still, this film has transcended its quickie (made in 11 days) B-movie nature to become a horror classic and in any shape, it makes for great October viewing. Neal (John Harron) and Madeline (Madge Bellamy) are a couple who arrive in Haiti to be married at the home of Mr. Beaumont (Robert Frazer, who does the best acting in the movie), a seemingly kind-hearted man who befriended the two in New York, but who actually has his own designs on Madeline. Beaumont enlists the aid of Murder Legrande (Bela Lugosi), master of a band of zombies who are employed at a sugar mill. At the wedding dinner, Legrande turns Madeline into a zombie. Everyone but Beaumont thinks she's dead, but after her burial, Legrande, Beaumont, and the zombies take her coffin and revive her in a zombified state. Beaumont changes his mind and wants her life given back to her, but Legrande has other plans.

This movie has been rightfully criticized for wooden acting (Bellamy is so bad, it's difficult to see much difference between her living state and her zombie state) and bad dialogue, but visually, it's an early talkie masterpiece of atmosphere. Virtually the entire film takes place at night and the night scenes are done very well, especially shots set in a crowded, jagged graveyard. The sets, some of the same ones that Universal used in its early 30's horror films, are good, particularly Legrande's mansion by the sea, which has a wonderful dark fairy tale feel. Dialogue scenes are fairly static, but at other times, the fluid camerawork is quite effective, with some nice shots done through doorways and staircase railings, and a well-used split-screen shot showing Neal and Madeline making a sort of psychic connection. The staring zombies and the screaming of vultures add to the creepy atmosphere. Lugosi is like a hammy Shakespearean actor when he delivers lines, but is effective in his Dracula-like close-ups. A movie to be seen at night, with the lights turned down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

DOCTOR X (1932)

I saw a black and white print of this on Chiller Theater way back in the 70's, I think, but the print I watched yesterday was in color. It looked a little faded, which is to be expected since it was shot in two-strip Technicolor in the early days of color technology; I guess the fact that it's still available in color at all is a good thing. Reds and greens predominate and add to the fairly creepy feel of the film. The Full Moon Killer has foiled the police several times, and cocky reporter Lee Tracy is determined to track him down. Evidence points to a doctor (because the killer uses a particular kind of scalpel) and possibly a cannibal (teeth marks on the victims). Suspicion surrounds Dr. Xavier's Medical Academy; no, its not a haven for mutant teenagers, just eccentric research scientists. A number of doctors who have interests in either cannibalism or the effects of the moon are under suspicion, even one (Preston Foster) who it seems could certainly not be the killer because he only has one arm and the killer strangles his victims with both arms. Xavier himself (Lionel Atwill) has a touch of the eccentric in him and is also considered a suspect, but he agrees to run some experiments designed to smoke out the real killer. Fay Wray, as Atwill's daughter, gets involved with the experiments and with reporter Tracy. Much of the film is nicely atmospheric, though there are plot lulls, and Tracy, who is mostly around for mild comic relief, grows irritating quickly--I was hoping he'd be the next victim. The opening scene is set partly in a brothel run by Mae Busch, a startling pre-Code moment. The unmasking climax is well handled. If you can tolerate Tracy, the movie is worth watching.

Monday, October 21, 2002


I finally saw this film whose reputation has grown over the years. Unfortunately, the DVD was not letterboxed or restored; in fact, it looked like a dub from a TV print. Still, it was an interesting hybrid of a movie, like a cross between THE THING and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with a religious element that is not fully explored. Christopher Lee is Professor Saxton, an archeologist who is carting the fossils of a supposed "missing link" creature along with him on the Trans-Siberian Express. Peter Cushing is a curious doctor who butts into Lee's business and inadvertantly has a hand in allowing the fossil (which has returned to life) to escape and wreck havoc on the train. There are some interesting characters introduced, including Telly Savalas as a brutal Cossack who boards the train along the way to wreck some havoc of his own, and a sexy & mysterious woman whose sole purpose seems to be sexy & mysterious. There is also a Rasputin-ish mad monk (Angel del Pozo) who seems to shift his alliances from God to Satan, but does he? The plotting here is handled rather ineptly so I honestly don't know whether the monk is supposed to be bad or not. But these characters aren't developed very well because mostly they're around to serve as creature bait.

The missing link winds up being an extraterrestrial life force that can hop from body to body when its host dies (as in John Carpenter's version of THE THING). In a particularly outrageous plot development, Lee and Cushing discover that images of what the creature saw in prehistoric days are available for viewing through the blood of its eyes (!!). It moves the plot along nicely, but it's hard to get past the silliness of the gimmick. The abovementioned religious element involves the idea that the creature really is Satanic; even though that would not seem to be true, there is no explanation for a scene early on when the monk tries to draw a protecting cross on the fossil box, but the cross image fails to materialize. There are some effective shocks along the way, but the climax is truly worth sticking around for--it turns out that the creature can bring the dead (or at least the dead that it has killed) back to life, and in a truly creepy scene, dozens of dead bodies rise up and head for the train car where the last survivors are trapped. This movie has everything but the kitchen sink, and that's why it's fun to watch.

Saturday, October 19, 2002


With this movie, it seems like American International was trying to beat Hammer at their own game by producing a distinctly British horror film with a William Castle twist. It is in fact a notch above several Hammer (and AIP) productions of the time, but the parts are greater than the whole. Michael Gough (Alfred in the recent Batman movies) plays a crime reporter who is following the exploits of a killer who specializes in particularly bizarre methods of murder, including, in the classic opening scene, a pair of binoculars with needles that shoot through the victim's eyes to her brain. It's clear from early on that Gough himself is the killer, assisted by a young male assistant (Graham Curnow) who helps him with the upkeep of his "Black Museum," a place for the display of horrific murder and torture weapons. Gough uses a serum and hypnosis to turn Curnow into a Jekyll/Hyde monster who kills at Gough's bidding. The young man's face also becomes puffy and scarred, though it's never explained why. Other shock killings include electrocution, a guillotining in a bed, and a person dumped in a vat of acid, reduced quickly to just a skeleton. Shirley Ann Field, who played the unnerved actress in PEEPING TOM, is Curnow's girlfriend. The Castle touch is in the prologue, with a man supposedly trying to hypnotize the audience--it's sort of cheap fun, but has virtually nothing to do with the narrative. Overall, above average October fare.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


This is probably the best Hammer movie ever; though HORROR OF DRACULA comes close, this one has more interesting characters, better acting, and a colorful and stylish look. A voiceover at the beginning tells us that Dracula is dead (making mincemeat of the title), but vampires are still afoot in Transylvania. In a set-up a bit like that of Katharine Hepburn & Elizabeth Taylor's in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, the Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) trolls the village at night looking for lovely young women to take back to the castle to satisfy the lust of her vampire son, David Peel. The "seduction" scene that plays out between Hunt and a young French schoolteacher passing through the village (Yvonne Monlaur) is well-staged; though we don't know the specifics yet, it's clear from the looks and actions of the villagers that they fear for the safety of Monlaur. However, this naive woman winds up being Hunt's downfall. The mother tells her that Peel is insane and must be kept locked up, but Monlaur meets him, finds him charming, and unlocks him (a poorly motivated scene--why on earth would she unshackle him after a minute and a half of trivial conversation?). Now the vampire is free to start collecting "brides" from the nearby girls' school.

Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing, as he did in HORROR OF DRACULA, and he's good, but taking the acting honors here are Hunt as the mother and Freda Jackson as Peel's caretaker, not a vampire herself, but a zealous assistant. The creepiest scene in the movie doesn't involve Peel, but Jackson, stretched out on the fresh grave of one of the women Peel has killed, talking through the dirt to coax the newly-created vampire to arise. Some critics have panned Peel's performance, saying he was just a too-pretty face, but I think he's fine, although the women do upstage him. The real problem with Peel (and with most of the vampires) is the artificiality of the fangs they wear. They look like wax fangs bought in a drug store at Halloween. But that's really all that's wrong here. The colors, lots of rich reds and blues and purples, are striking, and the sumptious sets are the best Hammer sets ever. Mona Washbourne, who played the beloved nanny in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, has a small role as the mistress of the girls' school. Highly recommended for midnight viewing.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002


Edgar Wallace was a British author of crime and thriller novels; he had over 150 works published and many of them have been made into movies, mostly in England or Germany and mostly B-thrillers (IMDb shows 170 films based on his works, including KING KONG, the screenplay for which he co-wrote just before his death). This modest thriller is really more an "old dark house" police mystery rather than a horror movie, but its atmosphere is spookier and more effective than many a "legitimate" horror movie. As he's dying, Lord Selford explains his plans to be buried with the family jewels in the family crypt, in a tomb with seven locks, apparently to ensure that the treasure gets passed down properly when his son marries. After this creepy little deathbed scene, complete with a threat of afterlife revenge reminiscent of the opening of THE GHOUL, the action jumps ahead several years when Lilli Palmer gets involved with the Selford family and assorted hangers-on. She is given one of the seven keys by an old man in a nursing home who is killed before he can explain what's going on. Palmer and her friend (Gina Molo, here mostly for comic relief) get the police in on the situation. Leslie Banks, known mostly for his creepy turn as Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, is almost as creepy here as Dr. Manetta, who is clearly the mastermind behind whatever larceny is being planned. The plotlines are not always clearly delineated, but it's easy enough to keep track of the basics: damsels and cops in distress, strange servents and henchmen not to be trusted, keys to be carefully looked after. And, to help keep things light, a romance between Palmer and a Scotland Yard inspector (Romilly Lunge).

The "old dark house" elements included a cobwebbed crypt, a mysteriously missing heir who just as mysteriously turns back up, an occasional dead body, and the chamber of the title, a place where Banks has collected a variety of historical torture instruments; once you see the iron maiden demonstrated, you just know it will play a key role in the climax. There are some Hitchcockian touches, especially early on when an attempt is made to make Palmer think she's imagined the existence of the dead man in the nursing home. Banks has a pet monkey to whom he speaks Spanish and who inadvertantly helps some of the good guys out of a jam in the crypt. Cathleen Nesbitt (AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, SEPARATE TABLES) has a small role as one of the sinister skulkers. I hadn't heard much about this film before I saw it, but I enjoyed it a great deal.

Sunday, October 13, 2002


The first two Frankenstein movies, both stylishly directed by James Whale, are much-praised and have probably been written about more than any other classic horror films (except maybe KING KONG). I watched the third and fourth in the series yesterday, for the first time since I was a teenager in the 70's when they showed up regularly on "Chiller Theater." Though SON has the bigger budget and a better critical reputation, I found GHOST to be more exciting and more fun.

SON definitely looks better than any of the other Frankenstein movies, with its vast expressionistic sets and creepy jagged shadows. Basil Rathbone plays Wolf, the, duh, son of Frankenstein who, after the death of his father (it's not clear how much time has passed since BRIDE), comes to town to clear up his father's estate. The townspeople, never having quite gotten over his father's terrifying antics with artifical life, are not happy to see the son, even though he claims to have no interest in his father's ideas. Eventually, however, he meets up with broken-necked Igor (Bela Lugosi), discovers the creature (Boris Karloff) still exists, and gets sucked into tampering in God's domain. Rathbone is a bit hammy; the best performance is by Lionel Atwill as the inspector with the wooden arm--the monster tore off his real one years ago. But above and beyond the performances, I had two problems with the movie: 1) It's hard to take much of it seriously after Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, which actually draws more inspiration from SON than from the original. In the opening scene on the train, I kept expecting Rathbone to look out the window and ask, "Pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania station?" 2) The movie, at around 100 minutes, is too long and lacks momentum. It's not like it's hard for anyone who's seen any other monster movie to figure out exactly every twist the plot takes. Rathbone is the only person with any energy here. His son (Donnie Dunagan) is whiny and irriatating, and his wife (Josephine Hutchinson) is a zero. Lugosi gives a good performance, but he can't compensate for the long, dull patches. However, the sets are always interesting. Lugosi's plot to use the monster to kill off the men who hanged him may have inspired the writers of the Dr. Phibes movies.

GHOST is short and, while still awfully predictable and not nearly as impressive visually as SON, moves along at a good clip and is finished in a little over an hour. The plot seems to pick up right after SON; even though Rathbone has left and the monster is supposedly dead for sure, the villagers still feel under a curse (almost literally, as even the barren fields are blamed on the Frankensteins). The townspeople destroy the castle, but Igor escapes with the creature, alive but weak. Conveniently, there's another brother, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), a "doctor of the mind," as we're told two or three times, living in another city. Igor's plan is to get Ludwig to nurse the monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) back to health. Hardwicke gets the Frankenstein bug in his system and decides to transplant a "healthy" brain into the monster's skull, but his treacherous assistant (Lionel Atwill, playing a different character than in SON) helps Igor to subvert the plan. Evelyn Ankers is Hardwicke's daughter and she's good in her limited role; Ralph Bellamy, as her boyfriend, has even less to do and barely registers at all. Chaney isn't bad as the monster; he's not as expressive as Karloff, but at least he looks the part. Ultimately, I would judge GHOST to be the better movie simply because it's easier to sit through. The title, BTW, is justified by a scene in which Hardwicke's father (played by Hardwicke) "haunts" him, causing him to tackle his father's project.

Saturday, October 12, 2002


Very early talkie in the "old dark house" genre. It's based on a famous play and novel, "The Bat" by Mary Roberts Rinehart, and its stage origins show for most of the running time, but in the opening (and in a few key sequences later) the camera is let loose to do some wild things. There is some nice subjective camera work with long swoops over miniature sets, especially in a shot over a long row of trees outside of a secluded mansion. As far as the plot, a bank robbery occurs and a number of folks think that the loot might be hidden in a large old house that has been rented for the season by Corneila, perhaps the first in a long line of Hollywood "feisty old ladies" (played by Grayce Hampton). The bulk of the movie takes place in the house with Hampton, her niece (Una Merkel, good as always), an easily spooked maid, and assorted visitors.

The plot doesn't stand up to much analysis. Merkel's boyfriend (William Bakewell) is a suspect and sneaks his way into the household by posing as a gardener, but nothing much comes of that plotline. The very Prussion Gustav von Seyffertitz plays a potential villain, and Chester Morris (looking very different then he does in his later movies) plays a detective who is hiding some secrets of his own. The first few scenes, with the Bat stealing jewels from a locked safe in a high-rise apartment, and the setting-up of the old house mystery, are promising. But as the characters start piling up, the possible motivations of the suspects become vague, and I eventually lost interest in figuring out who was who. One very amusing scene (the tone of the film is fairly light throughout) involves the skittish maid tying a bear trap to her bedpost and throwing it out the window, trying to catch the killer--soon, she actually *does* catch someone! Interesting at times, but not terribly compelling, and Morris, considering his top billing, doesn't really wind up with much to do. A later version, THE BAT, from 1959, with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, isn't much better. Even the combination of those two scenery-chewers doesn't generate much excitement.

Thursday, October 10, 2002


In the mid-40's, Universal took the name of a popular radio show, INNER SANCTUM, and used it as a series title for a handful of B films in the horror-suspense line, each about an hour long, and seemingly made on Poverty Row budgets. Seen now, they seem like episodes from a long-forgotten Twilight Zone spin-off, but instead of Rod Serling as host, these have Lon Chaney Jr. as the star. Most of them, despite the way that Universal has marketed the video tapes, are not horror, but moody psychological mysteries. Nevertheless, if you don't have high expectations, they are acceptable time-passers, especially around Halloween.

In CALLING DR. DEATH, Chaney is a doctor who winds up the chief suspect when his wife is murdered. He knew that she was cheating on him and he cannot account for his whereabouts the night of the murder. Hounded by cop J. Carroll Naish, he tries, with the aid of his faithful nurse, to find the killer and winds up breaking the case using hypnotism. Though it's not especially well written, the hypnosis gimmick gives the movie a creepy scene or two. It's a nice twist for Chaney to play a good guy. STRANGE CONFESSION, though a little too heavily plotted for its own good, is even more like a Rod Serling tale. Chaney is a chemist who discovers what might be a cure for influenza. Before he gets a chance to thoroughly test it, his boss (Naish) sends him out of the country and greedily puts the over-the-counter medicine on the market, with predictably disastrous results. Chaney's own son gets sick, is given the medicine and dies, and Chaney returns to get revenge. The opening takes place at Christmas, with the rest of the story told in flashback. Lloyd Bridges and Milburn Stone, long before their TV fame, have small parts. The story and climax are both meatier than in DR. DEATH, but I kept thinking someone besides Chaney would have given the slow-moving films a little more life.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002


Usually, I avoid writing about the better-known classic movies here on my blog, but for my October horror movie project, I'll break that rule and go back and re-watch a few famous films. The Universal horror films of the 30's and 40's were among the very first movies I remember seeing on TV and they have remained favorites of mine. Of all the Universal greats, my favorite is DRACULA, but I think THE WOLF MAN had the most potential. Unfortunately, it doesn't come as close as it should to being a really good movie, for two reasons: a sloppy screenplay and the sad miscasting of the lead part. Lon Chaney Jr. is Larry Talbot, the son of the British Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry returns to his stately home after many years in the States (which apparently explains Chaney's total lack of any accent but does not explain the total dunderheadness of his line readings), following the tragic death of his brother. There has been tension between the son and father for some time, but it's quickly glossed over, the first problem with the screenplay. While attending a gypsy fair with a young lady he oafishly flirted with earlier in the day (Evelyn Ankers), he is attacked and bitten by a wolf, which turns out be a werewolf (the gypsy fortune teller Bela Lugosi, wasted in a very short scene). The curse of the werewolf is passed along to Chaney, who begins leaving his house at night, in two-legged wolf form, to attack wandering innocents in the dark.

I suspect this was intended to be close to an A-project, what with the strong supporting cast of Rains, Ralph Bellamy, and Patric Knowles, and much of the movie does look good, in that studio-bound way that the Universal films (and later the Hammer films) had about them. But Chaney is inept throughout. To be fair, some of the problem has to do with his looks; it's just laughable to think that he and Rains could be related--Patric Knowles would have been more believable. And he does garner some sympathy because he comes off as basically a nice guy stuck in a tragic situation not of his own making. He also snarls OK in his wolf make-up. But every line he delivers sounds wooden and awkward, and I don't for a minute believe that Ankers would be charmed by him. He first discovers her when he's looking through her window with his father's telescope, and I thought the theme of watching or spying might continue through the movie, but the screenplay drops or ignores any plot point that threatens to become interesting (like the father-son relationship, like why Lugosi changes into a four-legged wolf but Chaney does not, like why Maria Ouspenskaya [Lugosi's mother] seems to have the power to stop Chaney's transformation). I guess I'm being awfully hard on the movie. After all, it is fun to watch, it's atmospheric, and the little rhyme about how even a man who is pure of heart can become a wolf sounds so authentic, it's hard to believe that it was original to this movie. But with a stronger story and a better actor in the lead role, it could have been so much better.

A forgotten B-horror film (from Republic) that has inexplicably turned up on DVD when so many greats are still missing from that format. Fairly good acting and a solid idea for a plot help make up for a low budget and bland directing style. Set in the Salem-ish town of Eben Rock, the story begins with Nancy Kelly returning to her hometown after years away (and after leaving her fiancee, John Loder, at the altar). She is the descendant of a witch-hunting judge who sent several accused witches to their fiery deaths. On a bus headed for town, an old lady meets up with Kelly and claims to be a reincarnation of a witch named Jezebel that her ancestor killed exactly 300 years ago. The bus runs off the road and Kelly is the only survivor (shades of CARNIVAL OF SOULS). Eventually, Kelly settles in town and rekindles her relationship with Loder (which Loder's sister, Ruth Ford, is not happy about), but soon Kelly gets the idea that Jezebel's spirit has inhabited her body, and the townspeople start freaking out.

Good ideas for scenes are undercut by too-harsh lighting and some of the worst day-for-night shooting I've ever seen--even nighttime interior scenes are too bright. The most successful scene is of Kelly, alone in her house at night during a storm, reading a book on superstitions which, when she puts it down, seems to leap of its own accord into the fireplace. A scene in a (very spare) church where the townspeople almost turn on Kelly until the preacher stops them, is also nicely done. There winds up being a rational explantation for most of the weird occurances, but a few things (like flowers dying at Kelly's touch) are left dangling. Elspeth Dudgeon, who, in drag, played the dying patriarch in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, has a small but creepy role as the witch on the bus.

Saturday, October 05, 2002


Yes, I suppose this is a rather reprehensible film with its racist and colonial streaks running a mile wide throughout. But one can do a little deconstructive work on it to turn it into an almost guilt-free guilty pleasure. Ostensibly, the good guys are the bland Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) and Prof. Van Berg (Jean Hersholt) who have unearthed the mask and sword of Genghis Kahn in the Gobi Desert. They defy a curse to bring the relics to the British Museum, but the wicked and powerful warlord Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) has nefarious plans. He kidnaps one of the good guys, tortures him to death, and gets the rest of the good guys to play right into his hands. Fu's daughter, played by Myrna Loy (at the peak of her sexy and exotic otherness before she was softened to play safe and domestic Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies), lusts sadistically after the hunky white guy (Charles Starrett); my very favorite scene is where he is stripped to the waist and whipped (with Loy drooling over him nearby), then strapped down to a table wearing a diaperish loincloth and given a serum to render him Fu's slave. There are other torture scenes that apparently inspired some scenes in GUNGA DIN, STAR WARS, and the Indiana Jones movies. Ultimately, I found myself rooting for Loy and Karloff, especially against the shrill bitchery of the blond "damsel in distress" (Karen Morely). The atmosphere of the scenes in Fu's lair is sometimes quite creepy, and this would not be out of place as Halloween night viewing, but overall, this is a horror movie best appreciated as camp.

Friday, October 04, 2002


With that title, this movie doesn't sound like it has much potential for Halloween-month viewing, but in the last ten minutes, some very effective scary-movie elements come into play. It's hard to believe that this fast-paced, hour-long thriller was produced by David O. Selznick, known later more for much bigger films like GONE WITH THE WIND and REBECCA. It starts off like a fairly average cop story (albeit with French cops) and turns into a nifty little mystery with a horror movie atmosphere. Frank Morgan is an inspector involved in three cases that wind up connected: tracking down a cop killer, looking for a missing flower girl (Gwili Andre), and keeping an eye on a shady character (Gregory Ratoff) who claims to have the missing Russian princess Anastasia in his custody. It turns out Ratoff has kidnapped the flower girl and hypnotized her into thinking she really is Anastasia to pull a scam on Russian royalty. A gentleman thief (John Warburton) who is sweet on the girl helps break the case.

The first half is a little slow getting going; several characters and plot points are brought up and then are dropped completely or become irrelevant (including the effective opening scene at the secret funeral of the dead policeman). Ratoff (Max the producer in ALL ABOUT EVE) is a fairly good villain, sounding a lot like Bela Lugosi. Morgan underacts for a change, except in a comic relief scene where he pretends to be drunk. Horror and action serial elements include a startling car accident, a big old house with secret passages, women who are killed and turned into statues (allowing a rare explicit bare breast shot), and a climax in a "mad doctor"-type lab. An actor named Arnold Korff, playing a Russian duke who comes to examine Ratoff's supposed Anastasia, resembles the older John Gielgud. Andre herself, who didn't wind up having much of a career, looks a lot like Myrna Loy once she's done up like a Russian princess. Some of the scenes in Ratoff's house were shot on sets from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Considering I had never heard of this movie, it was surprisingly brisk and fun (and even scary) and should hold up well to second and third viewings.

Thursday, October 03, 2002


It's October, the time of year when a young man's (or even a middle-aged man's) fancy turns toward ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. Every October, I re-read my favorite stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury, so I thought this year, I would try to review some lesser-known classic horror movies (and maybe re-visit a few old favorites) and devote most of my October blog entries to them.

First up is this British classic, directed by Jacques Tourneur, director of several of Val Lewton's low-key horror classics of the 40's. The film may be best known in this day and age as the inspiration for some key lines in ROCKY HORROR'S opening number: "Dana Andrews said prunes/ Gave him the runes/ And passing them used lots of skill." Andrews is an American psychologist who comes to England to participate in a conference at which his colleague (Maurice Denham) plans to debunk a witchcraft cult led by the charismatic Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis). However, just before Andrews' arrival, Denham is found dead, electrocuted and mangled, apparently dispatched by a demon conjured up by MacGinnis. Andrews and Denham's niece (Peggy Cummins) continue with Denham's work, and MacGinnis threatens Andrews with the same fate. The abovementioned song lyric was inspired by the method of conjuring: MacGinnis plants a piece of parchment inscribed with mysterious runic symbols on his intended victim, sets a time for the death, and waits for the demon to do its thing. Andrews moves from total rationalism and skepticism to eventually being convinced that there is indeed something to MacGinnis's witchcraft as he tries to break the curse of the runes.

Perhaps because of Tourneur's use of subtle suggestion over explicit horror in movies like CAT PEOPLE, there has always been controversy over the appearance of the demon here. We see the demon, once at the beginning and again at the climax (an exciting one aboard a train racing through the night), and some fans are sure that Tourneur never really intended us to see the demon at all, that he wanted to keep it just a suggestion. But I think we are meant to believe in MacGinnis's powers; a scene where MacGinnis conjures up a fierce windstorm out of a clear blue sky can't really be explained away without resorting to belief in his witchcraft. My only problem with the demon is that the close-ups are disappointing, just like King Kong's close-ups. When the demon is materializing far off in the sky, the effect is actually quite creepy and effective, perhaps the best Satanic special effect in movies (except for THE EXORCIST). Andrews gives his usual clunky performance, and Cummins is bland, but MacGinnis gives full life to his character, seemingly based at least a little on real-life witch Aleister Crowley. He's not some indestructible comic book villain, but fully human, even a tad likeable at times, although he also seems to be something of a mama's boy. The lovely black and white photography is quite striking, and sometimes reminded me of some of the effective widescreen compositions in the original THE HAUNTING. This is the uncut British version which runs about 12 minutes longer than the American one (CURSE OF THE DEMON), but either version is actually worth seeing. This would make a good Halloween week pick!

Tuesday, October 01, 2002


This early Poverty Row talkie would probably not even exist today if it weren't for Bette Davis's appearance in a supporting part. Pat O'Brien is a bootlegger who hires an orphan (Junior Durkin), newly arrived in the big city, to keep an eye on his office while he's out. On his very first day, Durkin is busted in a raid and O'Brien chooses not to help him. The rest of the movie is a fairly hundrum reform school expose--technically, I guess it's a reform school, but all they do is stack bricks and eat and sleep, so it's more like a juvenile prison. Actually, things don't seem all that bad there, but an asthmatic buddy of Durkin's (Frank Coghlan Jr.) dies in solitary, and that triggers the finale, where O'Brien has a change of heart and gets a newspaper reporter to help expose conditions at the school. The actors are OK, but the primitive filming style and the low budget hurt the film. The one effective scene takes place when O'Brien, as he drives away from his office after setting Durkin up in charge, watches in his rear view mirror as the cops raid his place. Clearly he feels bad about it, but he also doesn't have the guts to turn around and help the poor kid. Bette Davis, who appears in the beginning and end, is quite energetic and definitely stands out, even though she has llittle to work with. Even diehard Davis fans don't have to worry about missing this one.