Friday, October 31, 2003


This film was the highlight of my October viewing this year. Most critics don't care for it, but I liked it a lot, perhaps because my expectations were low. The movie is not a serial but is structured like one, with lots of fast-moving and episodic cliffhangers. The only real liability is lead actor Edmund Lowe, who is rather stiff and uninspiring. He plays Frank Chandler, an American who has spent years in India studying the way of the Yogi. He is renamed Chandu by his teacher and sent back into the world to deal with the threatening evil of Roxor (Bela Lugosi), who has kidnapped Henry B. Walthall, the maker of a powerful "death ray"--although why a gentle old "good guy" would have spent years inventing a death ray is never explained. Walthall refuses, even under torture, to give Lugosi the last bits of information needed to make the ray operative. The scientist's family comes under attack by Lugosi's henchmen and it's up to Chandu to save the day. He's accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (Herbert Mundin) who is amusing for about five minutes, but soon becomes a real pain in the ass. Along the way, Chandu also meets up with an exotic past lover (Irene Ware) and is saddled with Walthall's son (Nestor Aber) and daughter (Betty Vlasek) who eventually have to be rescued from evil clutches.

There are lots of nifty effects: Chandu can transport his astral self to give the appearance of being in two places at once; he causes Mundin to see a miniature version of himself whenever he starts to get drunk; a stone statue comes to life (quite a startling surprise); a cell floor opens up slowly, threatening the family with a long fall into a pit; Chandu turns guns into snakes (sort of a Charlton Heston-as-Moses thing) and vanishes from his clothes, leaving them standing empty in midair. Lugosi chews the scenery wonderfully; his overacting (entirely appropriate for the supervillain character) helps to compensate for Lowe's blandness. The most spectacular scene is when Lugosi imagines the destruction of New York and London with the death ray. Weldon Hayburn is Abdullah, Lugosi's darkly handsome henchman. Co-director William Cameron Menzies, famous for the production design of THINGS TO COME in 1936, was probably responsible for the interesting look of the film which must have had an impact on the Indiana Jones movies. Atmospheric, fast-paced, and fun. A serial spinoff was done a couple years later with Lugosi as Chandu, which I'm trying to track down.

Thursday, October 30, 2003


A B-movie sci-fi classic, mostly due to the grotesque title monsters which are invisible until the last 20 minutes or so when they are unleashed in a gory (for its time) and somewhat cheesy climax. In a Canadian village near the U.S. border, people are mysteriously dropping dead with their spinal cords and brains sucked out of them. Some try to blame it on nuclear power experiments at a nearby Air Force base. Marshall Thompson is a major investigating the deaths and Kim Parker is his love interest, a local girl whose brother is gung ho against the Americans. The combination of a woodsy setting, paranoid locals, and a male-female "detective" duo gives the first part of the film an "X-Files" feel. Eventually we discover the culprit is Parker's boss, eccentric Professor Wingate (Kynaston Reeves), who is doing psychic research (we see a copy of a book called "Sibernetics" on his desk!).

It turns out that Reeves, by stealing power from the base, has created "thought creatures" which have gotten out of his control--shades of FORBIDDEN PLANET. When they're invisible, we can hear them as they wrap themselves around a victim's head and slurp away. When they become visible near the end of the film, they look like flying brains with attached spinal cords, or a little like gigantic sperm--shades of ERASERHEAD! The climax, with our heroes trapped in a house while the creatures attack, plays out like a cross between THE BIRDS and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The fiends can be killed with bullets, which leads to a gorefest (albeit in black and white) of split and oozing "brains" all over the place. Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim from MGM's 1938 CHRISTMAS CAROL) is Thompson's sidekick. The chief engineer at the plant (played, I think, by E. Kerrigan Prescott) comes off like an 80's pop star, with an amazingly flamboyant hairdo. Thompson is a bit wooden, but not bad, and even a little sexy in his scenes with the even more wooden Parker. Nowadays, not all that scary or gory, but interesting as a pre-splatter era relic, and perhaps as an influence on a number of later films.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003


One of Boris Karloff's last movies, very loosely based on a Lovecraft story, "Dreams in the Witch House." The opening is set at a Satanic ritual, lit with deep reds and greens, with a man being forced to sign his soul over to the devil. The man is an antiques collector who was spending time in the village of Graymarsh. When he doesn't return home, his brother (Mark Eden) goes looking for him, arriving at the village during a festival commemorating the burning of a local witch hundreds of years ago. The atmosphere is decadence-lite; some of the people in this scene reminded me of the "unconventional conventioneers" in ROCKY HORROR. Eden stays at a lodge run by Christopher Lee; he cozies up to Lee's lovely daughter (Virginia Wetherall) and meets a creepy old professor who is confined to a wheelchair (Boris Karloff). Eden has bad dreams involving Satanic rituals before he discovers what happened to his brother. The climax involves more rituals, Barbara Steele in green body paint, a plump-assed half-naked man squeezed into a bad S&M outfit, and some fire. Despite its bad reputation, this is no worse than the typical Hammer film of the period. You could certainly do worse. Karloff is no longer robust, but he turns in a good performance. Steele has few, if any, lines. Michael Gough is a creepy butler who winds up dead for no discernible reason. Aka THE CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR.

Sunday, October 26, 2003


A nifty little Poverty Row thriller; if not really all that thrilling, at least interesting to watch. John Carradine gives perhaps the best performance of his career as puppeteer Gaston Morrell; living in Paris, he puts on elaborate puppet shows in the public park and does some painting on the side. We discover that he is compelled by some psychological quirk to seek out beautiful women to paint, then kill, dumping their bodies in the Seine. Jean Parker strikes up a friendship with Carradine and eventually figures out his secret, but not before her sister (who has been working with the police as a decoy) becomes his latest victim, and not before she herself winds up in danger. There is an unusual interlude featuring an operatic puppet version of Faust that has nothing to do with the film or its themes, that I could see. Directed by cult figure Edgar G. Ulmer with an expressionistic look and cockeyed camera angles during flashbacks (that reminded me of the way the action scenes in the 60's TV show "Batman" were shot). Nils Asther (on the downcurve of his career) plays the chief inspector; Ludwig Stossel is an art dealer who plays an important role in the plot developments. The background music often feels inappropriate, as though chosen at random from someone's classical music collection. As in many of the sub-B films of the era, the writing is shoddy and underdeveloped, but the look and feel of the movie make it watchable. Carradine, who certainly chewed the scenery in many of his supporting roles in big studio films, is the soul of discretion here, never overplaying a part that could have easily gone over-the-top. Often categorized as a horror film, but more a mood piece.

Friday, October 24, 2003


In his film guide, Leslie Halliwell calls this "Topper without laughs," and I couldn't describe it better. Warner Baxter is a businessman who is vacationing with his wife (Andrea Leeds) in the mountains. He is called back to town by his trusted assistant (Henry Wilcoxon) to take care of an important matter, but it turns out that Wilcoxon's wife (Lynn Bari), an old flame of Baxter's, forged the telegram. She wants to leave Wilcoxon and rekindle their affair. Baxter turns her down and she shoots him dead in his apartment. Wilcoxon, who comes upon the scene, takes the blame and stands trial, but Baxter's restless ghost (who doesn't realize right away that he's actually dead) tries to influence the proceedings so that justice is done. Charley Grapewin is a ghostly angel figure who carries a Bible and serves as a (not terribly helpful) guide to Baxter, who comes to realize that he is now "a dead man haunted by the living," a theme which has been explored by recent films like THE SIXTH SENSE and THE OTHERS. The ghost effects are pretty good, though Baxter is rather wooden and perhaps just a bit long in the tooth to be fought over with such passion by two lovely young women. Also with Elizabeth Patterson and Ian Wolfe. Interesting, mostly because it doesn't seem to be very well known; it would have been a better movie if the Wilcoxon and Grapewin characters had been more fleshed out. A remake of a 1920 silent film. Fox Movie Channel is showing it this month.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003


This thriller, top heavy with comic relief, is often categorized alongside the classic horror films of the 30's, but there's nothing supernatural here and, once you get past the first two minutes, there's not much that's truly creepy. In the famous first scene, we see big game hunter Lionel Atwill in a jungle, sewing shut the lips of a young man whom Atwill suspects of flirting with his wife (Kathleen Burke) and leaving him to the tender mercies of the wild animals. The shot of the victim running directly at the camera, wide-eyed and trying to scream, is truly shocking and surprisingly graphic--the scene would almost certainly never have been allowed under the Production Code of two years later. But soon the movie settles down into a fairly run-of-the-mill suspense story, set at an American zoo where Atwill is a major benefactor. His wife strikes up a casual relationship with handsome John Lodge (later the studly Count Alexei in THE SCARLET EMPRESS). When Atwill finds out, it's clear Lodge will be the next to die--and he is, apparently bitten by a black mambo snake at a fancy catered dinner at the zoo. But why can no one find that pesky snake? Charlie Ruggles, as the zoo's alcoholic PR director, finds his job hanging in the balance unless the killer is caught. I normally like Ruggles, but here, his comic relief completely drains the picture of the tension that Atwill and the director A. Edward Sutherland work so hard to achieve. Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick are the romantic leads, and ultimately instrumental in capturing Atwill, but not before he strikes one more time. This is not a bad movie at all, but if you go into it expecting it to be the equal of any of the Universal classics of the era, you'll be disappointed.

Saturday, October 18, 2003


This unsung B-thriller, also known as TASTE OF FEAR, is surprisingly entertaining. It doesn't take long to realize that the story has its roots in the French classic DIABOLIQUE, but that doesn't spoil enjoyment of the film. Susan Stasberg is a wheelchair-bound woman visiting her father, whom she hasn't seen in years. He lives on the French Rivera with his second wife (Ann Todd) whom Strasberg has never met. When she arrives, the father is off on a business trip and Todd welcomes her warmly. That night, Strasberg sees what seems to be the dead body of her father seated in a sun room. Over the next few days, more sightings occur until Strasberg begins to fear that either her father really is dead, or that she is losing her sanity. Other characters include a town doctor (Chistopher Lee) and a handsome chauffer (Ronald Lewis) who both seem to be trying to help Strasberg find her father (but who is really helping and who is really hindering?). The "Diabolique" twist occurs, but the movie has a couple more tricks up its sleeve, one of which I definitely did not see coming. The movie has a nice black and white look and the house is pretty cool, set around an outdoor courtyard. We get to see the hunky Lewis in a very skimpy bathing suit (oh, those randy Riverians!). It's a Hammer film, but doesn't feel or look at all like one. Well worth seeing, twice if possible. BTW, neither title makes any particular sense.

Thursday, October 16, 2003


Warner Brothers largely sat out the horror trend of the 30's but this one makes me wish they had done a few more. It's part gangster movie, part horror thriller, with a dash of grim spirituality. Ricardo Cortez is a lawyer, and the ringleader of a gang of well-heeled gangsters who issue an anonymous death threat against a judge if he rules against a gang member. The judge finds the defendent guilty and the gang murders the judge, pinning the crime on ex-con Boris Karloff, a hulking and simple-minded but gentle man. Just before Karloff's execution, a couple of witnesses (Marguerite Churchill & Warren Hull) finally come forward, but Cortez fixes it so the news doesn't reach the authorities until just after the switch has been pulled on Karloff. However, Churchill's boss, Edmund Gwenn, a doctor, uses the experimental Lindbergh Heart to resuscitate Karloff. He returns to life with almost no memories but he does seem to have a mission: to bring the real killers to justice. One by one, he visits the gang members and, though never directly killing them, does bring about their deaths.

Karloff, with his shorn hair, looks younger than I've ever seen him. There are many references to his role as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN, including his electrified revival in a lab; Gwenn echoing Colin Clive's "It's alive!"; and an Elsa Lanchester white streak in Karloff's hair when he is reanimated. Karloff's execution is shot well, with a single cello player seated in the shadows and playing at Karloff's request as he heads to the chair. A later scene, of Karloff playing piano to a roomful of invited guests including the gang members, is also effective. The young lovers (Churchill & Hull) seem especially callow here, with little reason given for their refusal to speak up on Karloff's behalf, and no reason at all given for their later decision to do so. Cortez is good, as is Gwenn in a limited role, but Karloff is excellent, with his truly creepy faraway trance-like stare after his revival. Gwenn wishes that Karloff could tell more about the afterlife, and the possibility is presented that Karloff is actually on a mission from God, or whatever is on the other side. Short, atmospheric, and unique.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003


A B-movie remake of 1933's THE KENNEL MURDER CASE with the addition of wartime spies. The nifty opening sequence, set in Vienna, seems to promise an atmospheric spy thriller, but after the first ten minutes, the movie settles down to a more typical B-budget locked-room mystery. Philo Vance (James Stephenson) has been overseas trying to find out if American aircraft secrets are being sold to foreign governments, but he is caught and deported. Back in the U. S., the man with the aircraft secrets is murdered, apparently while locked in his windowless room. Vance investigates, and more murder and mayhem occur. Margot Stevenson is Hilda, a relative of the dead man. A dissipated looking Ralph Forbes and the sinister looking Martin Kosleck are suspects. There is a dog named Baron Munchausen and Vance has a terrier named McTavish who acts a lot like Lassie. The scenes where Vance is working out what happened, shot from the point of view of the killer, are well done, but overall the movie doesn't rise above its budget. Edward Brophy is OK as the requisite bumbling cop, but Margot Stevenson is terrible; she went on to do a few more movies in 1940, then basically left the business. James Stephenson, so good as Bette Davis' lawyer in THE LETTER, was fine in the title role, but his untimely death the next year halted any plans for a series.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

MAD LOVE (1935)

The rare MGM horror film that can be ranked with the best of the Universal horror films of the period. An atmospheric visual treat directed by Karl Freund (who, for Universal, directed THE MUMMY and was director of cinematography for DRACULA). Peter Lorre gives one of his best performances as Dr. Gogol, a surgeon with an obsession for Frances Drake, a performer at the Theatre of Horrors (inspired by the real life Grand Guignol). Lorre's a regular, watching from his box, and when Drake announces her retirement to spend more time with her husband, pianist Colin Clive, Lorre buys a wax statue of Drake that the theatre was going to melt down, and puts it in his chamber. An early scene of Lorre watching, with growing sadistic pleasure, Drake being tortured onstage, is quite creepy. Clive, a bit of a neurotic, as he is in most of his pictures, is in a train wreck; his hands are destroyed and Lorre amputates them, attaching the hands of an executed killer (Edward Brophy, normally known for his comic cops or thugs) who was handy with knives. Clive doesn't know his hands aren't *his* anymore, but he does notice that, while he can no longer play piano, he does seem to have a new fondness for knives and begins to think he's going insane.

The real story here isn't that of the pianist with the transplanted hands, but of the obsessed doctor, who hatches a plan to hasten Clive's insanity, hoping to get Drake by default. There are two spectacular scenes in the last half: one has Clive meeting a person he thinks is the beheaded knife killer come back to life, with a strapped-on head and robot-like hands; the climax has Drake in Lorre's rooms, breaking the stature of herself and standing in for it when Lorre returns. The shadowy sets are expressionistic, as in CALIGARI, and there's a lot of play with mirrors. A scene of a cockatoo flying (more or less) directly at the camera may have inspired a similar shot in CITIZEN KANE (Gregg Toland was a cinematographer for both films). There is some blah comic relief from Ted Healy that does not intrude on the somber mood too much. Keye Luke (one of Charlie Chan's sons) is Lorre's assistant. May Beatty has a couple of good moments as Lorre's addled maid who keeps the cockatoo on her shoulder. Drake looks good but is rather bland, but it's all Lorre's show, aided by Freund and Toland. Well worth checking out.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

FAUST (1926)

F. W. Murnau's silent classic, based on a legendary tale made famous by Goethe, has some stunning fantasy/horror effects in the beginning, but it soon settles down into a rather humdrum romantic melodrama. The devil, Mephisto (Emil Jannings), and an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) are debating the nature of man and wind up making a bet: if Mephisto can corrupt the human Faust (Gosta Ekman), than the devil can have Faust and all of mankind. The devil descends onto a village, his bat-wing cloak enveloping the entire town, in a very spooky scene that must have influenced Disney's animators when they were concocting the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of FANTASIA. He brings the plague with him and Faust, a doctor, is overwhelmed by the horror and calls on the devil to help him. Mephisto gives Faust his youth back; Faust has an affair with the world's most beautiful woman (Hanna Ralph) and falls in love with the virginal Gretchen (Camilla Horn). In the meantime, the devil, now in a younger form as well, romances Gretchen's mother and aunt. Soon Faust sleeps with Gretchen; he is run out of town and she, pregnant without benefit of marriage, is put in the town stocks as punishment for her transgression. After she has her child, she is turned away by all the townspeople during a mighty snowstorm. She hallucinates a cradle in the snow and puts her baby in it; when the baby dies, she is condemned as a murderer and sentenced to die at the stake, setting the stage for Faust's attempt at redemption.

The visuals, in the areas of both effects and settings, are wonderous throughout. The conjuring of the devil at a crossroads, the devil's cloak scene, the flight of Faust and the devil around the world, and the burning of the words of the devil's contract into parchment are all carried off quite well. The younger Mephisto looks a bit like comic actor Eddie Izzard, and his reactions of nausea to the mass and to holy icons are amusing. Once Gretchen enters the scene, the movie slows down, but it does pick up a bit at the end. It is difficult for me to judge silent era acting, but everyone does a fine job, not seeming too overblown by today's standards. Generally, I would recommend this, especially for nighttime October viewing.

Monday, October 06, 2003


A par-for-the-course Monogram thriller, not the worst of the sub-B films of the era, but not the best. Bela Lugosi plays a professor of criminal psychology who seems to have a decent reputation as a scholar; by night, using a different identity, he runs a charity mission in the Bowery that is actually a front for a crime ring. So Lugosi is playing one man with two names and three personas! The gang commits hold-ups but usually leaves a gang member or relatively unwitting confederate dead at the scene. Wanda McKay (quite colorless and charmless) is a young woman who works at the mission; John Archer plays the oldest college student in Christendom, a rich boy who is in Lugosi's class and happens to know McKay. He decides to go to the mission to do research on the psychology of the homeless and discovers Lugosi's secret. He is killed for his troubles, but in an incredibly underdeveloped plot thread, it turns out that Lew Kelly, an accomplice of Lugosi's, can bring the dead back to life as zombies, whom he keeps in a secret cellar room. Cop Dave O'Brien (who may be familiar from the Pete Smith comedy shorts) manages to break the ring up and, apparently, the zombies are all brought back from death to normal life. Lugosi is OK, but Tom Neal (B-movie star known primarily for his lead role in DETOUR a few years later) is actually quite good as a thug in a performance that wouldn't have been out of place in a better grade Warners crime film. An amusing line spoken to a guy with a gun: "Don't get gay just because you're handy with a heater!" Bernard Gorcey (father of Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey) plays a shopkeeper--and there's a Bowery Boys movie poster visible in one scene. The movie's plot has potential, but it's mostly wasted by sloppy writing and drab production values; the only real atmosphere the film has is due to Lugosi's scenery-chewing, and the zombies' occasional wanderings.

Sunday, October 05, 2003


In 17th century England, a farmer (Barry Andrews) is plowing a field when he uncovers a buried skull (with fur and a still-fresh eyeball in it). This news sweeps the countryside and apparently leads a rebellious group of adolescents, led by a lovely young woman named Angel (Linda Hayden), to begin worshipping the devil. A number of people wind up with patches of fur in strange places on their bodies, and in a plot development that wasn't terribly clear to me, the group of teenagers hunt these people down, cut the skin off, and uses these pieces to create a living Satan figure (or, perhaps, a resurrection or reanimation of the devil, if one believes that the skull belonged to the original Satan). Many townsfolk wind up deformed or dead. There is some gore and some nudity along the way (including a fairly powerful rape scene) to a silly climax wherein a judge (Patrick Wymark) who has not been very sympathetic for most of the film, turns good guy and slays the Beast with a sword. Not a very powerful Satan, I guess, more a secondary demon than The Devil. Overall, the film is too incoherent to be truly scary or much fun, though there are a few atmospheric moments. There are lots of shaggy-haired 70's-looking actors and a lot of drab exterior shooting. It's also been known as SATAN'S SKIN, which is a somewhat more accurate title.

Thursday, October 02, 2003


It's October again and time to focus on horror and sci-fi films. This one is a real classic. Actually, it's one of two classics that director John Brahm did with actor Laird Cregar (the other, HANGOVER SQUARE, I hope to review later this month). Based on a well-known pulp thriller from 1913, this is a fictionalized story of Jack the Ripper. During the height of the Ripper's reign of terror, Cregar, a mysterious doctor who specializes in pathology, comes to lodge at a respectable house run by husband and wife Cedric Hardwicke and Sara Allgood (with lovely daughter Merle Oberon also living there). Slowly, we (along with Hardwicke and Allgood) come to suspect that Cregar may be the Ripper. At first, Cregar, who carries around an ominous black bag and conducts odd experiments in the attic, falls under some suspicion but the family trusts him and he begins to form an attachment to Oberon, a dance hall girl on the verge of bigger things. She seems to genuinely like Cregar as a friend, but is dallying with George Sanders, a Scotland Yard inspector who is on the Ripper's trail. Is Cregar the infamous killer, and is Oberon in trouble? Or is he a red herring? The spooky atmosphere, with lots of shadows and fog, is kept up throughout, along with many interesting stylistic touches, like shots framed by doors, or up and down stairs; a mirror motif is present as well, with one particularly creepy scene of Cregar and Oberon reflected in multiple mirrors. There's an amusing scene of Sanders flirting with Oberon as he takes her on a tour of the Black Museum, a place filled with dastardly crime and torture implements. The whole cast, especially Cregar, is fine, though Oberon isn't always successful as a common show girl. Very atmospheric; great October viewing.