Monday, October 19, 2015


This October, almost by accident, I've been reviewing mostly mysteries and old-dark-house movies, which are themselves mysteries with a few horror elements thrown in. Partly this is because I've just recently discovered a couple of YouTube channels that focus on public domain thrillers of the 30s, and the old-dark-house genre was at its peak then. It lent itself to low-budget filmmaking—in front of the camera, all you needed were sets that could pass as rooms in a big house and, of course, darkness, which helps hide the cheapness of the sets. The screenplays all came from an easy template—usually involving the death of a family elder, the reading of his or her will (which brought together varied characters), and the desire (or at least perceived desire) of some greedy family members to kill off the heir. There were stock character types as well: the innocent young woman, the handsome reporter/cousin/policeman anxious to protect the woman, the sinister-seeming housekeeper and servants, the wild card friend or relative. And, of course, the secret passages, hidden panels, and dark nooks and crannies of the house all of which could hide bodies, animals, bad guys—and sometimes a good guy. The same conventions and storylines were used over and over, but that's part of the pleaure of genres; whether mystery, science-fiction, romance or spy story, we enjoy seeing how each new example will both conform with and deviate (to some small degree) from the expected outline.

In this example, a shaggy-looking fellow known as the Maniac has been stabbing people to death in the vicinity of the Rinehart estate, leaving a newspaper headline about the Maniac pinned to each victim. A professor (George Meeker) is staying at the house, ready to unveil his new concoction, a serum that will leave a person in suspended animation with no need to breathe for several hours, and he plans on having himself buried alive on the estate to show that it works. Meeker has been ignoring his fiancée (Sally Blane), a Rinehart family member, so she flirts with a reporter (Wallace Ford) working on the Maniac story. We see the Maniac prowling around the property and soon he kills the Rinehart patriarch. His will states that all household members, including faithful if somewhat mysterious servants Bela Lugosi (in a turban) and Mary Frey (pictured top right), share in the money, though if any of them die, their share is split among the rest. Sure enough, people start getting killed. Could it be the Maniac? Or a greedy maniacal heir?

There is some fun to be had here, mostly enjoying Lugosi's ripe performance as an exotic figure who may or may not be evilly inclined. There is a séance, the aforementioned live burial, a tricky secret passageway, and a stabbing from behind right through a chair. There are several plot twists in this hour-long film, though that doesn't mean that things don't bog down occasionally. Ford and Blane have fine chemistry here, Ford (pictured with Lugosi at left) being both romantic lead and comic relief. We never find out the identity of the Maniac—he's real but he's basically a red herring—and he provides a strange ending to the film when, after apparently being killed, he gets up and warns the audience not to reveal the identity of the real villain. Among the fun moments: Lugosi gives a cop an "Oriental cigarette" to put him briefly out of commission, and Ford's crack when he sees four hats in the entryway (belonging to the men who have come to witness the live burial): "Who's here, the four Marx Brothers?" Not the best in the genre, but not the worst, and the almost science-fiction element of the serum makes a nice addition to the well-worn story. [GetTV]

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