Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Horror of Party Beach (Iselin-Tenney Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards I trotted out the most recent Mystery Science Theatre 3000 tape, The Horror of Party Beach, a movie from either 1958 or 1964 (I’d thought it was the earlier date but the Medved brothers’ book The Golden Turkey Awards gives the later one; since it’s such an anachronistic film it’s hard to credit it as late as 1964 but there were a few cars in it that looked later than 1958) featuring a spectacularly untalented rock group called the Del-Aires (doing their big non-hit, “The Zombie Stomp”) and a large group of nubile teens of both genders (there was more cheesecake than beefcake in this movie, alas, but there were still a few hot-looking guys with nice baskets) who were getting killed and eaten alive by monsters created when an unscrupulous garbage disposal company dumped barrels of radioactive waste on the ocean floor and the waste came into contact with the bodies of sailors who had drowned in a shipwreck off the shore of Stamford, Connecticut (where the whole film was shot).

Besides the mild (very mild) environmentalist political commentary here, The Horror of Party Beach might actually have been frightening (as the similarly plotted Night of the Living Dead, made either four or 10 years later, was despite its own set of crudities) except for the ridiculous appearance of the monsters, with finned, sea-horse heads; mouths with multiple tongues that look like they’re about to swallow a 10-pack of frankfurters whole; eyes that look like golf balls with pupils painted on (and which roll around in their sockets in one deliciously absurd scene, suggesting that the monster might actually rape the woman he’s about to kill except his hunger momentarily outstrips his lust) and bodies covered with triangular objects that seem intended to represent scales but actually look more like leaves.

It doesn’t help that there’s the usual expert scientist, who we know is an expert because he smokes an impossibly long pipe and bears a surprising resemblance to Alan Greenspan; his daughter, whose distaste for what the other teenagers in the movie call “fun” (at least we’re supposed to take it on faith that she’s a teenager, even though the actress playing her looks in her early 30’s) leads her to avoid going to a slumber party whose 20 attendees are murdered en masse by the Horrors of Party Beach (yes, there are more than one of them!); and the scientist’s assistant (played by John Saxon, the closest thing this movie has to a “star”), a hunky young teenager whose sluttish girlfriend leaves him to get eaten by a monster and who, naturally, ends up with the boss’s daughter (she may be skinny and her eyes are like water, but she looks way too shopworn to be a virgin, with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein).

There’s also a Black maid named Eulabelle — which, at least according to the credits, also happens to be the first name of the woman playing her — who thinks it’s all voodoo and who inadvertently lets all the other “brains” around know how to kill the monsters when she upsets a beaker full of sodium over a tissue sample of one of the beasts, thereby incinerating it. Now, there are a lot of questions you may be asking here — like what sodium was doing in a beaker when, in its pure elemental form, it’s a metal (albeit a highly unstable metal that has to be kept in oil because it catches fire spontaneously in either water or air); or how the monsters can survive in sea water when sea water is full of sodium chloride (a.k.a. salt); or how, in the climactic scene (in which John Saxon and the rest of the intrepid band of lab researchers throw sodium at the monsters with the kind of motion they would use if they were pitching baseballs at them so the monsters could take batting practice), they can safely handle the sodium (which Saxon brought back from New York, since nobody in Connecticut sells it, in a garbage can in the passenger seat of his MGA sports car) without any sign of using gloves or any other protective material — but the answer to all of them is that this is a fundamentally absurd movie that the MST3K crew didn’t need to work hard to lampoon … — 9/8/97


When Charles finally arrived home from work at 9 p.m. he brought over the 28th disc in the series of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads, from which I selected The Horror of Party Beach. We’d seen this film in MST3K form before — one day we took the tape over to Cat Ortiz’s place and ran it for her — and it’s one of those delightfully inept movies that were just right for the MST3K “treatment.” It was directed by one Del Tenney and shot at the Gutzon Borglum Studios in Stamford, Connecticut (why a movie studio should have been named after the guy who got the idea to carve the faces of the Presidents into Mount Rushmore is one of the odder little mysteries of this film), and its plot attempted to combine the horror and teen-musical genres. The fact that a film so lame could still be made in 1964 — when American International was already making the beach-party movies, which had their own set of problems but were at least fully professional productions (and in color!) — and that Tenney could get a distribution deal for it with a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and have a major hit from it is even more of a mystery.

Basically, it’s a lot of teenagers doing a lot of dancing on the titular “party beach” (and showing a lot of eye candy for all genders and orientations, though the many undulating shots of bikini-clad women’s butts indicate that horny young straight guys was Tenney’s target audience and anything of interest to the Queer boys in the audience — or the straight girls, for that matter — was purely incidental: there was one nice shot of a guy in a white swimsuit that revealed a most impressive basket, but almost as soon as it registered a girl got her backside into the frame and covered him). Overlaid over all of this is a plotline by which sloppy people hired to dump radioactive waste from the local nuclear power plant (the MST3K crew joked that they were obviously working for Exxon) threw the drums labeled “CAUTION: RADIOACTIVE WASTE” overboard over the skeletons of drowned sailors, and in the one scene in the movie that at least approached a genuinely impressive special effect, the waste and the sailors’ remains combine and form a radioactive sea monster.

Unfortunately, once the monsters finally emerge from this process they’re people encased in monster suits of such transparent phoniness the Ultra-Man people would have been embarrassed by them: the monsters have sea-horse heads and gaping mouths with about 10 hot dogs stuck in each one (I joked later that a sympathetic French critic would probably have analyzed these as a phallic symbol and tied it in with the monsters’ urge to annihilate women), and first they kill a black-haired girl who’s just jilted the movie’s male lead, Hank Green (John Scott); then they kill over 20 girls at a slumber party the film’s female lead, Elaine Gavin (Alice Lyon), had the good sense to duck out of. (The scene is a parody of a Greenwich Village folk get-together, with a bad Joan Baez wanna-be singing a traditional ballad about the miserable state of women’s lives just before the monsters come in and confirm it.) Elaine is the daughter of Dr. Gavin (Allan Laurel, who in his dorky self-absorbed scientist way is almost as funny as his namesake, Stan), who’s charged with figuring out what the monsters are, where they come from and how — if at all — they can be killed. There’s this utterly hilarious and looney-tunes exchange during that process:

“Dr. Gavin: Of course! This creature needs the ordinary necessities of human life — proteins, fats, sugars and so forth. But since his organs are so decomposed it needs the only food which can keep it alive.

“Hank Green: Blood?

“Dr. Gavin: Human blood. If a human body — a drowned person — were attacked by tiny sea plants which became parasites and completely infiltrated that human body before it had a chance to decompose, would the body be considered dead or alive?

“Hank Green: Dead?

“Dr. Gavin: No — it’s still alive. But it’s changed into a — well, is it a plant or an animal?

“Hank Green: It’s both?

“Dr. Gavin: It’s a giant protozoa!”

— but in the end it’s Eulabelle (Eulabelle Moore), Dr. Gavin’s Black mammy maid (who, like Hattie McDaniel’s role in Gone With the Wind — which The Horror of Party Beach in no other way resembles — is pretty obviously the smartest person in the fiim), who figures out the solution by accidentally spilling a beaker of sodium over the severed hand of the monster (which Dr. Gavin and Hank had been analyzing in the above-quoted scene), whereupon it bursts into flame. This is the biggest scientific howler in a script (by Richard Hilliard, with “additional dialogue” by Ronald Gianettino and Lou Binder) that has more than its share of them, from the use of radiocarbon-14 dating to establish the genetic makeup of a sample to the intimation that the dead sailors on whose chassis the monsters were built hadn’t yet decomposed when we’ve seen them starting out as skeletons. Pure sodium is an unstable metal that spontaneously combusts when exposed to water (the writers had that right) but also when exposed to air — which is why it’s shipped in a suspension of oil or gasoline, certainly not as loose metal lumps in a steel drum, which is how Hank purchases it from a New York chemical supply house.

It’s hard to decide which part of this film is sillier — the endless dancing by the hordes of teenagers at Party Beach, the lameness of the music they’re dancing to (wimp-rock by a four-piece band called the Del-Aires who are repeatedly shown on screen with no apparent source of power for their amplified instruments — their only distinction is a lead singer who obviously thought that wearing Buddy Holly’s style of glasses would give him the same talent: it didn’t), or the sheer tackiness of the monsters and the plot lines involving them, particularly the final scene, in which Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss, the authors of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, described the actions of Hank and the other good guys in hurling sodium pellets at the monsters as if they were attending a mass wedding and throwing rice on all the happy new monster couples. Funny: it looked to me more like they were pitching the sodium as a way of enabling the monsters to take batting practice. The Horror of Party Beach is a delightfully bad movie which the MST3K interjections only manage to make even more fun. — 10/30/08

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

3 More Universal Invisibles

"The Invisible Man Returns" (Universal, 1940)

"Invisible Agent" (Universal, 1942)

"The Invisible Woman" (Universal, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For The Invisible Man Returns John P. Fulton was back as the special-effects wizard, and the effects were even better, with none of those telltale black rings (optical printers improved remarkably between 1933 and 1940). Alas, none of the other elements work as well here as they did in the original film. Vincent Price is the new invisible man (a sympathetic coal-mine owner who was framed for the murder of his brother and sentenced to hang), and John Sutton (a staff researcher at the coal mine and the brother of the character Claude Rains played in the original film) uses the invisibility formula to help Price escape from prison on the morning he is to be hanged. The rest of the film is a race — can Price find out who really murdered his brother before the side effects of his invisibility formula drive him crazy? Interestingly, this film — made just two years after Price’s film debut in Service De Luxe in 1938 — was his first horror film; but he would not make another one until House of Wax 13 years later, and that was the one that really started his reputation as a horror actor.

Also, the drug on which the invisibility formula is based is called Monocaine in the original film and Duocaine in The Invisible Man Returns — and a 1940 moviegoer with a long memory could have readily been forgiven the assumption that in the third film of the series it would be called Tricaine. (H. G. Wells wrote his book in the 1890’s, when cocaine was still legal but already proving highly toxic — and no doubt his nomenclature was inspired by that example.) The Invisible Man Returns has a strong cast (headed by Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Alan Napier as the real murderers, who killed Price’s brother and framed Price so they could get rid of both of them and control the mine themselves), a decent if unspectacular script (by Curt Siodmak and future Hollywood Ten blacklistee Lester Cole — I presume Cole is responsible for the hints of anti-capitalism in the portrayal of the mine and the way it’s being run under the dastardly manager Hardwicke and his foreman Napier) and atmospheric but sluggishly paced direction by German expatriate Joe May. It’s an O.K. movie but it’s indicative (as was Son of Frankenstein the previous year) of how far horror movies at Universal fell in quality (losing the charming quirkiness of directors like James Whale, Robert Florey and Edgar Ulmer) when the Laemmles lost control of the studio in 1936. — 8/30/97


Charles and I settled in our room where I ran him two more movies from the Universal Invisible Man Legacy box: The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Invisible Agent (1942). The Invisible Man Returns is a competent, workmanlike sequel with few of the thrills of the original but a certain amount of good-natured good-timeliness and a script that at least hints at a social critique of capitalism. (Curt Siodmak has a co-credit on the original story with the film’s director, fellow German expat Joe May, and a co-credit on the actual screenplay with future Hollywood Ten member Lester Cole — and lists another card-carrying Communist, Cedric Belfrage, as an uncredited additional writer.)

Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) is about to be hanged for the murder of his brother Michael. The Radcliffe family owns a coal company in Wales that, since the death of one Radcliffe brother and the incarceration of the other, has been run by manager Richard Cobb (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, top-billed) and the drunken miner he’s promoted to foreman, Willie Spears (Alan Napier). Cobb has deliberately set aside all the safety measures the Radcliffes ordered and is sending the miners down a shaft that’s known to be unsafe.

Unable to get anyone in the British government to sign on for clemency, on the eve of Geoffrey’s hanging the Radcliffe family and Geoffrey’s fiancée, Helen Manson (Nan Grey), send the Radcliffe company’s official physician, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), to see him — and Frank, whose brother Jack Griffin was the character played by Claude Rains in the 1933 Invisible Man who invented the invisibility serum in the first place, brings along a dose of it and turns Geoffrey invisible in the cell, allowing him to escape. (There are a couple of amusing inconsistencies between this and the first film: the key ingredient of the drug, called “monocaine” in the original film, is “duocaine” here — which once led me to joke that in the third film in the series they were going to call it “tricaine” — and whereas the original serum took several injections over a period of weeks in order to work, this version takes effect immediately upon a single injection.)

The Invisible Man Returns is a bit on the dull side and hardly as great a film as its predecessor, but it has its appeal. There’s some marvelously atmospheric cinematography by Milton Krasner — a lot of dollying around the standard Universal “outdoor” horror sets (actually done inside a soundstage with some pretty obvious painted backdrops) and great rolling banks of fog — which, as anyone who recalls Claude Rains’ description of the perils of invisibility from the first film (most of it taken directly from the H. G. Wells novel) will remember, means that the invisible man would become visible after all, appearing as a bubble in fog or rain.

There’s a great performance by Cecil Kellaway as the Scotland Yard inspector who, recalling the events of the original film, figures out almost immediately that Geoffrey Radcliffe has become invisible and the original invisible man’s brother has made him so — he spends a lot of time puffing on a cigar to create an aura of smoke around him hoping that the invisible man will materialize inside it. There are also some quite amusing slapstick gags in which the invisible man torments the various people he suspects of framing him — and, not at all to our surprise, Cobb turns out to be the real killer of Michael Radcliffe; he shoved him down a mineshaft and framed Geoffrey for the crime, but Spears witnessed the whole thing and blackmailed Cobb into giving him the job as mine foreman.

At least this film preserved one of the key plot elements of the original — the whole gimmick that a side effect of the invisibility drug was to drive its user insane — and Vincent Price gets to deliver some of the same kinds of megalomaniac utterances Claude Rains hurled at us so vividly in the original film. Alas, where Rains sounded genuinely scary in these speeches, Price does them in high, florid tones that already — at the very beginning of his career as a horror actor (this was his first horror film and, unless you count the 1946 Gothic melodrama Dragonwyck, he didn’t do another one until House of Wax, from 1953, which “typed” Price as a horror star) he’s already playing scenes like this as high camp (which he did more blatantly as his career went on until in the late 1960’s and 1970’s he was obviously relishing the camp aspect of his roles and realizing that audiences were going to see his films precisely to watch him camp it up). It’s much like the difference between his performance in House of Wax and Lionel Atwill’s richer, more sensitive one in the earlier version of that story, Mystery of the Wax Museum (which I still think is a better movie all around!).

Still, there are nice compensations from The Invisible Man Returns, including a more adventurous than usual score from the Bobbsey Twins of Universal horror music in the 1940’s, Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter; a good suspense ending in which Radcliffe and Cobb wrestle on a trestle car dumping coal from the mine down a runway into a bin (they both get caught and fall down, and Cobb uses his dying breath to confess to Michael’s murder); and a climax in which Geoffrey nearly dies but is brought back to life and to visibility by transfusions of healthy blood from visible people: “Blood was the antidote after all” says John Sutton as the film ends. — 10/28/08


I bypassed the next film in the sequence, Invisible Woman — which wasn’t really a series entry at all; it was an out-and-out comedy with John Barrymore cast as a quirky mad scientist who tests out his invisibility process (an electrical machine rather than a drug this time) on put-upon model Virginia Bruce, who uses her new-found power to drive her oppressive boss crazy — and then showed Invisible Agent, one of the rare Universal horror films from this period I’d never seen before. At least this one is a literal sequel to The Invisible Man and The Invisible Man Returns, but it’s also a World War II drama and it’s really more a combination espionage and science-fiction film than a horror piece.

Frank Griffin (Jon Hall) runs a printing shop in New York City under the alias “Frank Raymond” because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s really the grandson of Frank Griffin, the man who invented the invisibility serum in the first place. (Actually, as you can readily tell if you’re watching the films in sequence from the same DVD box, it was Jack Griffin who invented the serum; Frank Griffin was his brother, who used it on someone else in The Invisible Man Returns.)

A group of Axis agents from both Germany and Japan, led by Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, playing a different character than he did in The Invisible Man Returns but still cast as a villain) and Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre, who as usual practically steals this movie — he doesn’t wear any “slant-eye” makeup to resemble an Asian, but then he didn’t as Mr. Moto either, and nobody cared), crashes into his shop and threatens to torture him by cutting off his hand in his own paper-cutting machine if he doesn’t tell them where he’s hiding the last supply of his granddad’s invisibility formula. (Making Jon Hall’s character the grandson of Claude Rains’ character in the original film would have made sense if the 1933 Invisible Man had been set in the 1890’s, when H. G. Wells wrote the source novel, but it doesn’t given that the film had been set in 1933 — and it also begs the question of when Jack Griffin would have found the time to father a child, and whom he would have fathered one with since it’s clear from the first film that he’s never actually had sex with the one woman he’s genuinely interested in: his fiancée Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.)

Having successfully fought off the Axis agents who were trying to get his family secret, he’s then approached by the Allies in the person of John Gardiner (John Litel), who seems to be playing essentially the same character he did opposite Ronald Reagan in Warners’ Brass Bancroft films, to ask if he’ll let our side use the formula. He will, but on one condition: rather than administer it to a professional commando, he insists on doing the operation himself. The operation involves contacting the German anti-Nazi underground and finding out the plans for a German attack on the U.S. — which I originally thought meant the plot to infiltrate eight saboteurs into this country, which actually did occur (though they were caught almost immediately and ultimately all but two of them were tried in a special tribunal and executed, a precedent the Bush administration cited while setting up the secret courts at Guantánamo), though eventually it turned out the Germans were actually building a long-range bomber for an attack on New York. (One poster noted that this was an impossible plot device since no plane in existence in 1942 had the range to cross the Atlantic Ocean with a full payload of bombs sufficient to attack an entire city.)

Invisible Agent actually starred (or at least top-billed) Ilona Massey, who had been brought to the U.S. by MGM in 1939 with great fanfare and put into the film Balalaika opposite Nelson Eddy (replacing Jeanette MacDonald when Louis B. Mayer and his staff realized the story — about the love between a Russian opera singer and a student radical in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg — needed a more exotic, and preferably foreign-born, actress than MacDonald) but within three years was at a second-tier studio like Universal doing parts in movies like this and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Aside from some pretty clever slapstick bits — including a To Be or Not to Be-ish scene in which the invisible man torments reluctant Nazi Karl Heiser (J. Edward Bromberg) — and some quite moving playing from Albert Bassermann as anti-Nazi German Arnold Schmidt, Invisible Agent is much more a film of action and intrigue than sci-fi or horror. Scenarist Curt Siodmak (who had worked on The Invisible Man Returns and therefore should have known better) got rid of the invisible man’s stark appearance swathed in bandages; instead, when he encounters Ilona Massey (who’s playing a woman who appears to be an anti-Nazi German, then a Nazi posing as an anti-Nazi to entrap Our Hero, and finally is revealed to be a British agent the British Secret Service infiltrated into Berlin) and she hides him out, he reveals himself to her by dressing in her robe (what was she doing with a man’s robe?) and slathering his face with her cold cream, wearing a towel around his head and putting on dark shades to cover the invisible eyes. In a glitch in the special-effects department, he’s “outed” as a genuinely visible actor when he opens his mouth and we can see his teeth. (In general, the process work in this one is inferior to that in the first two films; around his “invisible” head later in the film we can distinctly see the outline of the velvet-wrapped head of Jon Hall on the screen.)

The original trailer (which was on the DVD edition and which we watched before seeing the actual film) promised a spectacular action scene in which the invisible agent would deliberately wreck a German air base — but the sequence turned out to be a bit of a cheat; in the actual film he accidentally sets the base on fire and blows up several fuel tanks while he and Massey’s character are trying to steal a plane to fly back to England with the secret information about the impending German attack on the U.S. The best scene in the movie is one in which the invisible man is actually caught — Baron Ikito and his associate, a Japanese surgeon played by Chinese actor Keye Luke, drop a net made of fishhooks (pretty large ones, too) on top of him, and the scene is staged to make it look like the Massey character entrapped him — and then there’s a sequence in which Ikito has the surgeon remove the fishhooks and the scene comes across as genuinely painful for Jon Hall even though he wasn’t really there.

Siodmak’s worst mistake is eliminating the plot device whereby the user of the invisibility drug goes insane and becomes megalomaniacal as a side effect — one could readily imagine a sequence in which he starts spouting off dreams of world conquest while in Axis captivity and the Hardwicke and Lorre characters would have said something like, “You sound like us! If that’s the sort of world you want, you’re fighting on the wrong side!” Invisible Agent is a good movie but hardly what it could have been with more sensitive writing that tied it in better with the first two films in the sequence, and though the producer and director — Frank Lloyd and Edwin L. Marin, respectively — were more prestigious “names” than usually made films like this, they don’t add that much. Marin stages the action competently enough but this is hardly on the level of A Study in Scarlet or A Christmas Carol, and only the most obvious invisibility gags (comic and otherwise) appear in the film. One wishes with a sigh that Val Lewton could have got to produce an invisible man film; a man whose reputation is for keeping the horrors invisible even when the characters perpetrating them weren’t would have seemed to be the right filmmaker to take the invisible-man character to a level beyond even what quirky James Whale pulled off in 1933! — 10/28/08


The Invisible Woman is a kind of horror/comedy it’s surprising Universal didn’t make more of, though in this case the “horror” wasn’t all that horrible — even The Mummy’s Tomb, made the same year and also light-hearted in its approach, pulled the plug on the comedy and replaced it with out-and-out horror in the last third, whereas Invisible Woman remained a comedy throughout, with overtones of both the slapstick and screwball styles. Director A. Edward Sutherland, a former Keystone Kop, was obviously more familiar with the former than the latter, and the Robert Lees/Frederick Rinaldo/Gertrude Purcell screenplay (from a story by Kurt Siodmak and Joe May) didn’t have the sophistication or the wit necessary for good screwball.

Still, the whole movie was a lot of fun, for John Barrymore’s hamminess, Virginia Bruce’s clear-eyed wit, John Howard’s good-naturedness (one tends to think of him as Ronald Colman’s brother in more ways than one — they were cast as brothers in Lost Horizon and Howard took over Colman’s role in the Bulldog Drummond series — but when Howard got out of his stuffed-shirt typecasting in movies like The Philadelphia Story and Father Takes a Wife, he could be an appealing second-string romantic lead) and charming character performances from Oscar Homolka (doing an Akim Tamiroff imitation), Ed Brophy, Shemp Howard and Charles Lane as a quartet of gangsters who try to steal Barrymore’s invisibility-making machine; also from Charles Ruggles, who almost steals the film as Howard’s put-upon butler; Margaret Hamilton, ditto as Barrymore’s housekeeper; and Maria Montez, in an almost invisible role as a cold-plagued model. — 12/7/94


Charles and I managed to squeeze in another movie before we crashed and, in the mood for something totally light after Slumdog Millionaire, I picked out The Invisible Woman from the Invisible Man Legacy box and ran it. It’s basically a screwball comedy rather than a horror or sci-fi film, and the big gimmick this time is that the invisibility machine is being developed by Prof. Gibbs (John Barrymore), an amiable crank — the delightfully dotty sort of mad scientist rather than the floridly insane kind — under the patronage of rich playboy Richard Russell (John Howard), who more or less inherited him from his father.

When the film opens Russell has just made a $100,000 breach-of-promise payment to his latest flame, only to learn from his attorney, Hudson (Thurston Hall), that this has bankrupted him. Assured by Prof. Gibbs that his newly perfected machine to turn people invisible will re-make his fortune, Russell decides to hang on a bit longer — much to the discomfiture of his put-upon butler, George (Charles Ruggles, superb as usual in this sort of role) — only the human guinea pig Gibbs recruited to test his process (which requires an initial chemical injection and then a bath in an electrical box that looks like a walk-in shower and bathes its occupant with electric rays generated from some of the leftover lab equipment from The Bride of Frankenstein), store model Kay Carroll (Virginia Bruce, top-billed), is more interested in using her newly gained invisibility to sneak back into the store where she worked (until she was fired for trying to organize the other models into a union, in a scene which quite strikingly prefigures Norma Rae!) and wreak her revenge on her martinet boss, Mr. Growley (Charles Lane), and the time clock with which he insisted the models punch in and out like factory workers.

Anxious to keep Russell away from women and from Gibbs, George hauls him off to his fishing lodge — where Gibbs follows them with the Invisible Woman in tow — and when she puts on her stockings so he can see her legs, naturally Russell is smitten with her instantly. Meanwhile, a trio of gangsters — including Donald MacBride from the Marx Brothers’ Room Service, Ed Brophy from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Doughboys, and once-and-future Stooge Shemp Howard (for my money, the funniest of the lot!) — have stolen the invisibility machine and sneaked it across the border so their boss, “Blackie” Cole (Oscar Homolka), can return to the U.S. and visit his native Chicago before he gets caught or dies. All ends well with the gangsters apprehended, Russell and Kay together (and Kay regaining visibility — it turns out that alcohol consumption delays the return to visibility), and a final bizarre tag scene in which the happy couple’s first child is rubbed with alcohol — and disappears! (“Genetic,” says Barrymore as Gibbs as the scene fades out.)

There are some surprisingly racy gags here and also some great slapstick — notably a spectacular fall taken early on by Charles Ruggles (or, more likely, his stunt double) from a ladder — and while the second half is a bit dull and doesn’t quite sustain the high spirits of the first half, the director, A. Edward Sutherland, is an old Mack Sennett hand and absolutely right for the script. (Sutherland was almost exclusively a comedy director, though he did make Murder at the Zoo for Paramount in 1935 — a fine, envelope-pushing horror film with no laughs at all.) The Invisible Woman was quite obviously intended as a comedy from the get-go — though the original story was by German expats Curt Siodmak and Joe May (who also wrote the story for The Invisible Man Returns), the actual script was by Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and Gertrude Purcell — and Lees and Rinaldo frequently wrote the Abbott and Costello movies for Universal (usually alongside A&C’s own private gag man, John Grant, who had written “Who’s on First?” and many of the other famous sketches for which they were known on radio before they ever made a film), while the producer, Burt Kelly, also worked on the early Abbott and Costello Universals.

Though not on the level of The Bride of Frankenstein, Ghost Breakers, Young Frankenstein or Ghostbusters as a horror spoof, The Invisible Woman is a quite charming film benefiting from a relatively restrained performance by John Barrymore (he could be a ham and a half, but either the script or director Sutherland calmed him down here — and given what happened to him, his solemn warnings to Virginia Bruce’s character not to drink alcohol are sadly ironic) and a finely honed one by Bruce. She should have been a major star — had it been made for a major studio instead of Monogram, the 1934 Jane Eyre would have probably been a star-making role (as it is, though the overall film isn’t as good as the far more famous 1943 Fox remake, Bruce far out-acts Joan Fontaine in the role); as it was, she got relegated to second leads in major productions and leads in movies like this (though, according to, The Invisible Woman was budgeted at $300,000 — about twice what the usual Universal “B” cost and enough that it marked, for them, a major production). — 10/29/08

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Old Dark House (Universal, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff as their joint follow-up to Frankenstein the year before, The Old Dark House is a magnificent movie, not especially frightening but full of Whale’s dry-wit comic touches and playing against cliché. Interestingly, an opening credit attached to the film assured audiences that the Karloff who played the mad, (almost) mute butler Morgan in this film was indeed the same actor who had played the Frankenstein monster in the earlier film — just in case you couldn’t recognize him through the heavy (and completely different) makeup, which made him look like a cross between a particularly hirsute longshoreman and an ape.

While Karloff didn’t get much chance to do pathos in this film — except towards the end, when he’s seen cradling the dead body of his one friend, the pyromaniac brother Saul Femm (Brember Wills) — Whale assembled probably the greatest all-star cast ever put together in a horror film, with Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton as the three men stranded at the titular “old dark house” overnight (there are also two women involved — Gloria Stuart as Massey’s wife and Lillian Bond as a chorus girl who transfers her affections from Laughton to Douglas during the evening) and Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore and Wills as the Femms (the craziest, most anti-social family ever created by a fiction writer — in this case J. B. Priestley, whose source novel for this film was called Benighted — since Edgar Allan Poe made up the Ushers).

Thesiger plays Horace Femm (we meet his father, Roderick Femm, whose nomenclatory similarity to Poe’s Roderick Usher is probably no coincidence, later in the film), a withdrawn aesthete. Thesiger was one of the great horror actors; when he says, “Have a potato,” it sounds as sinister as most actors do when they say, “I’m going to kill you.” Moore is his sister, Rebecca Femm, a religious fanatic (the constant gibes at Christianity throughout this film are probably no coincidence, either, given that the director was Gay) who points to Gloria Stuart’s filmy white dress — and then at her even filmier white skin — and tells her that age and sin will ruin them in time.

Even though all the Femms are senior citizens, their father is still alive; Roderick Femm, Sr. is 100 years old, bedridden — and, in an interesting streak of Whale casting, is actually played by a 102-year-old woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, whom Whale found in Britain and brought here especially for the role (although, to preserve her apparent maleness on screen, Whale credited the performance to “John Dudgeon”). It’s the father who explains to us that the brutish butler Morgan is on staff because his strength is needed to protect the house and its inhabitants against the even stronger evil brother Saul (the only Femm, it seems, who had a first name beginning with a letter other than “R”) — who turns out (surprise!) to be a seemingly harmless old man, who in fact (double surprise!) turns out to be a maniac who corners Douglas in his cell-like room (he’d been kept locked up for years, but on the night our guests arrived Morgan got drunk and, frustrated when his attempt to rape Gloria Stuart was foiled, let Saul out), quotes him the passage in the Bible about the original Saul’s murder attempt on David, throws a knife at him and sets fire to the top story of the house. Eventually the fire goes out (apparently put out by the driving rainstorm that led our heroes to seek shelter at Chez Femm in the first place), everybody finally falls asleep out of sheer exhaustion (except Saul, who is killed in a fight with Douglas, who is injured) and they all wake up in the morning to a bright, sunny English day.

The Old Dark House is one of Whale’s four horror masterpieces of the early 1930’s, and — at least in England — it was as popular as the other three (General Films, Universal’s British distributor, made it a regular Sunday night feature at theatres throughout Britain from 1932 to 1945). Somehow, it mysteriously disappeared, only to resurface in 1970 — I saw it for the first time at the San Francisco Film Festival of that year, at 1 a.m. in a darkened theatre (this is one movie that really should be seen at night in a theatre — it loses some of its nervous, nervy appeal on TV), and again in the late 1970’s at the UC Theatre in Berkeley (the northernmost outpost of the Landmark chain). It turned out to be one of those films whose copyright was grabbed by Raymond Rohauer, who did film buffs a great service by rescuing from oblivion some of the greatest movies of all time (including Buster Keaton’s silent masterpieces and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr), but who also locked his treasures away from the world for years with the manic intensity of a Femm — only recently have the Keatons Rohauer controlled finally made it to home video, and one suspects it will be a while before The Old Dark House likewise surfaces on cassette. [In the mid-2000’s Kino on Video made The Old Dark House available on DVD. — M.G.C., 10/25/08]

A remake I’ve never seen from 1963 — which starred Tom Poston, and whose director, William Castle, offered Karloff a chance to repeat his original role, which Karloff turned down because the script was terrible and too far removed from the original — circulated on TV for years. MCA's unwillingness or inability to release The Old Dark House on video was a real pity, given how comprehensively they had been restoring so many of the Universal horror classics to well-deserved video circulation (including such oddities as the Spanish-language Dracula) — especially given the historical importance of The Old Dark House as Charles Laughton’s first American film (and Raymond Massey’s second, and first in the U.S. — its only predecessor was the 1931 British film The Speckled Band, in which he played Sherlock Holmes), though Laughton is almost unrecognizable with a full shock of dark hair and a thick Welsh accent! — 5/15/95


I called Charles, made some pancakes and — as a Hallowe’en celebration — went over to see Charles with two of the quirkier horror films ever made by Hollywood, The Old Dark House (virtually a British picture in exile since the director, writer and most of the cast were British and it took place in the British countryside) and The Seventh Victim. Charles liked both movies, though he was a little put off by their abrupt endings — certainly James Whale’s spoof of all the old-house movies to that time (and, for that matter, since) and Val Lewton’s doom-laden tale of Satanism in contemporary New York hardly count as typical “horror movies” then or now (and one wonders what 1932 audiences made of The Old Dark House after being lured in to see it by ads stressing the participation of the star and director of Frankenstein!). — 11/1/96


Charles and I finally got to watch a movie, and I reached back to the early years of Universal’s talking horror films again and ran The Old Dark House, an unsung masterpiece James Whale made in 1932 that, since it doesn’t really have much of a plot, offers far more of a showcase for Whale’s quirky wit than just about any of his other films (though The Bride of Frankenstein remains his masterpiece in the genre). There’s really not much more story to it than a motley group of five travelers, in two cars — first Philip and Margaret Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas, second-billed); then self-made man Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton, in his first American film) and his (platonic) companion Gladys Duquesne, nèe Perkins (Lillian Bond) — are driving through the back country of Wales when a ferocious rainstorm forces them to stop for the night at the home of the sinister Femm family: brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger coming off as what Truman Capote would have been like if he’d made it to his 80’s), his religious-fanatic sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their father Roderick (played by an actor who was billed as John Dudgeon but was really the centenarian British actress Elspeth Dudgeon, given outrageously phony whiskers and a male first name to pass herself off as a man) and their older brother Saul (Brember Wills), whom they keep locked up.

In order to make sure Saul doesn’t get out, they need to have a fierce-looking butler, Morgan (Boris Karloff, top-billed but still under the title), who like the Frankenstein monster (at least in the first Universal Frankenstein) is mute except for inchoate grunts and moans. (When Penderel and the Wavertons arrive at the Femm manse and Morgan greets them at the door with such noises, Penderel says, “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that!”) About all that happens during the evening is that Morgan gets the hots for Margaret Waverton and tries to rape her, but Philip fortunately saves his wife by throwing an elaborate lantern at the butler; and later on Morgan lets Saul out of the locked room — and he turns out (surprise!) to be a mild-mannered little old man who’s really (double surprise!) a pyromaniac who attempts to set the Femm home on fire by lighting some of the heavy wall curtains with a log from the fireplace. (He tried to do this once before but this time around is stopped well short of causing any danger for the other people in the film.) Eventually one of the guests kills Saul in self-defense, Morgan gets a sad scene when he’s shown cradling his dead friend Saul in his arms (the one best bit of acting Karloff did in a film that otherwise really didn’t challenge him all that much), day breaks, the travelers leave — in the meantime Gladys has transferred her affections from Porterhouse to Penderel, and leaves with him — and the Femms go back to being the Mother of All Dysfunctional Families.

I can’t separate my feelings about The Old Dark House from the context in which I first saw it: at the end of a long day at the 1970 San Francisco Film Festival — I’d sneaked in and sat in the theatre as they ran movie after movie, culminating with this and Mystery of the Wax Museum. Both were recent rediscoveries at the time and hadn’t been seen publicly in decades — Mystery not since its initial release in 1933 and Old Dark House not since 1945, when Universal’s British distributor, General Film, withdrew it because all the prints had worn out — and I was sitting there in the Palace of Fine Arts theatre wondering how the hell I was going to get home since the last buses back to Marin County had long stopped running by the time the film ended. (I walked home about halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge and was apprehended by a police officer, who took me the rest of the way home and said he’d been inclined to let me go but I’d said something that made him feel like I was mocking him — that early in my life my tongue was already getting me into trouble with authority figures!)

It struck me then as the scariest film I’d ever seen, albeit in a low-keyed, un-obvious way — there aren’t any real horror sequences in it but it’s spooky as all get-out thanks to Whale’s superb direction, a marvelous script by Benn W. Levy (and an uncredited R. C. Sherriff) that leaves us almost totally at sea as to what’s going to happen next, wonderfully atmospheric cinematography by Arthur Edeson, almost Caligari-ish sets (Universal’s art department head, Charles D. Hall, is the only name credited) and an overall combination of spookiness and cheekiness that works surprisingly well. About the only disappointment in The Old Dark House is how little Boris Karloff has to do: he has surprisingly little screen time, the heavy hairpiece and beard he wears in character as Morgan gives him little room for facial expressiveness, he doesn’t get a chance to use his voice and a couple of his scenes — a quick succession of three ever-closer shots of his face and the attempted rape of Margaret — are all too obviously rehashes of his work in Frankenstein (there’s even a written prologue to the film explaining that the mad butler in this movie and the “mechanical monster” — sic; he was actually electrical — in Frankenstein were indeed played by the same actor), but the rest of the film is so good and the cast is probably the most stellar ever assembled for a horror film (Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton! Only The Ghoul, with Karloff, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Ernest Thesiger, even comes close). The Old Dark House is a first-rate film, easily on a par with Whale’s three better-known Universal horrors (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein) and worth being better known than it is. — 10/25/08

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Invisible Man (Universal, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the evening with Charles running him the tape of The Invisible Man from 1933 and the immediate sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, from 1940. Charles liked the first film a lot better than the second — and rightly so; it has a finer story (it’s actually a very close adaptation of H. G. Wells’ original novel), James Whale’s marvelously quirky direction (including his penchant for strongly etched character roles — Una O’Connor is unforgettable and it’s fascinating to note how effective and authoritative Henry Travers is as the older scientist after getting to know him as the bumbling angel in It’s a Wonderful Life 13 years later) and a witty script by R. C. Sheriff (who wrote Whale’s first theatrical success, the play Journey’s End, that was also the basis of his first film) and an uncredited Philip Wylie.

Above all, it had Claude Rains, who is magnificent in the title role: his rich, fruity, well-modulated voice helps to make up for the fact that until the very end of the film he’s either wrapped up in bandages or totally invisible, just a voice on the soundtrack. (For me, the best moment in his superb performance is how he, at least briefly, softens his voice when he meets his girlfriend Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.) John P. Fulton’s special effects are among the most remarkable ever filmed — they were done by wrapping Rains’ body in black cloth and filming him against a black screen; if Rains were to appear partially dressed in the film sequence, or to take his clothes off, his clothes would be put on over the black wrappings; and if he were to manipulate an object with the final effect being one of him, say, lighting and smoking a cigarette with himself invisible and only the cigarette, the pack it came from, and the match visible on screen, he handled these objects against the black screen.

What emerged when this film was processed as negative was a clear strip of film in which only his clothes and the objects he was handling registered; and this strip, a reversal print in which the clothes and objects were darkened into black silhouettes, and the camera negative containing the rest of the scene’s action (including any other actors shown in the final scene) were optically printed together. Though a few of the more complicated scenes have the telltale black ring around the “invisible” figure that indicates the use of this technique and gives it away that this is a composite shot, for the most part the effects are marvelously convincing. — 8/30/97


The Invisible Man is something else altogether: a James Whale masterpiece, faithfully adapted by R. C. Sherriff (author of the World War I play Journey’s End, which made Whale a star director on both stage and screen) from the H. G. Wells novel and successfully “bent” by both Sherriff and Whale to fit the latter’s weird camp sensibility that makes his films continue to work as off-the-wall melodramas even as familiarity has worn the edges off them and made them relatively unfrightening. Sherriff got the call from Whale to come out to Universal and write the script; when he got there he found a policy where the writers literally had to punch in on a time clock and work in a large, sterile office building. Whale told Sherriff that he should punch in, spend his days wandering around the lot and watching how films were made, and then return to his hotel room at night to do the actual writing.

Universal also provided Sherriff with about 14 “treatments” of The Invisible Man — all of them substantially altered from the original, including one set in Czarist Russia and one set on Mars — but they didn’t have a copy of the Wells novel he was supposedly adapting. Sherriff bought one after a long search through L.A.’s second-hand bookstores, and on reading it decided that it would make a great movie just as Wells had written it — which explains the fact that, unlike Whale’s Frankenstein (which uses little from Mary Shelley’s novel but its central premise, its Swiss setting and a few of the character names), The Invisible Man is actually a quite close adaptation of the text and many of the lines that seem most Whalian — including the title character’s famous lamentation on the disadvantages of being invisible — were actually Wells’s.

The Invisible Man holds up vividly, thanks to the marvelous performance of Claude Rains in the title role (in a story where he’s either swathed in bandages or not seen at all until the very end, in the great climax where he fades back in to visibility as he dies, his skill at modulating his voice and projecting the character’s mood swings through inflection alone is dazzling), the degree to which Whale’s camp sensibility matches the original material, the marvelously convincing special effects by John P. Fulton and the rich cast: Gloria Stuart playing the abandoned girlfriend of Jack Griffin (Rains) with utter sincerity, Henry Travers as Griffin’s former employer in a far different characterization from the rather fey one he’s best known for (as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life 13 years later), William Harrigan as the genuinely conflicted Kemp, Griffin’s colleague and would-be betrayer (just because we’re rooting for him doesn’t mean we have to like him, and we don’t), Una O’Connor as the innkeeper’s wife in the opening scenes (as usual, she doesn’t walk; she scuttles, and the three doors and hinged shelves art director Charles Hall’s set required her to open to get out from behind the bar to go anywhere else in the inn are used quite effectively by Whale to underscore the level of panic in which her character seems to lives her entire life), and three actors who make an indelible impression even though unbilled: Walter Brennan as the man whose bicycle is stolen by the Invisible Man in an early scene, Dwight Frye as a reporter asking tough questions of the police during a press conference, and John Carradine as a tipster offering one of many dumb suggestions for catching the Invisible Man.

There are a few minor technical glitches — scenes in which the process work leaves a tell-tale black line around an object supposedly being manipulated by the Invisible Man, a few shots where if you look very closely Rains’ head appears as a faint bubble-like shadow on the screen, and some simple editing and technical mistakes (in one scene a radio announcer reporting on the events is still heard for a second or so after the Invisible Man has turned the radio off; in one scene in which Rains is supposed to be invisible the low camera angle picked by Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson shows his nostrils under the bandage, and there’s the big one Leslie Halliwell mentioned in The Filmgoer’s Companion: in the final scene, when the Invisible Man flees the burning barn and is shot down by police who can see his tracks through the snow, his footprints are those of a man wearing shoes even though he’s supposed to be barefoot) — but it’s an indication of how powerful this film really is that it takes a lot of viewings of this film to notice them.

Like King Kong, made the same year, The Invisible Man doesn’t sacrifice the other elements of good movie-making — creative direction, literate scriptwriting, fine acting — on the altar of dazzling effects, as good as the effects work is; though both The Invisible Man and King Kong could be remade today with digital effects, one can’t imagine either being done with the marvelous sensibilities of the originals: the quasi-documentary “you are there” feel of the original King Kong (made by filmmakers who had started out as documentarians and brainstormed how they would react being confronted by living dinosaurs and giant apes on an uncharted island, however unlikely and silly they knew that premise to be) and the curious campiness and identification with the outsider Whale brought to his greatest films (his homosexuality? Certainly camp is the default setting for Queer humor — though Whale’s subtle mocking of the conventions not only of society but of the horror genre itself is far more sophisticated than the dumb lampooning that passes for “camp” today — and the fascination with the private lives of his monsters that Carlos Clarens attributed to Whale might indeed have been his veiled plea for acceptance as a Gay man). — 10/36/04


I ran him another quirky movie set in England: The Invisible Man, the nonpareil 1933 masterpiece from Universal directed by James Whale at his near-quirkiest (The Bride of Frankenstein was him at his absolute quirkiest and the 1935 murder mystery Remember Last Night?, his offtake on the Thin Man series with the alcohol consumption ramped up even higher, also is noteworthy in that regard and particularly for how much of the iconography of his horror films Whale was able to get into a quite different kind of movie) from a screenplay by R. C. Sherriff (author of the play Journey’s End, which had established Whale as a “star” director both on stage and on film) that hewed surprisingly closely to the H. G. Wells novel on which the film was based — unlike the Universal adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, which took little more from their originals than the basic premises and character names.

The closeness was more an accident than anything else; as Sherriff recalled years later, when he showed up at Universal he was not only confronted with a requirement that he clock in and out on a time clock (which appalled him until Whale suggested that he show up, clock in, wander around the studio and get a look at how films were made, then clock out again, go to the hotel room where he was staying in L.A. and do the actual writing in his room at night) but found to his astonishment that they didn’t have a copy of the book he was supposed to be adapting. Instead they had about 14 “treatments” by previous writers they’d assigned to the project, including one set in Czarist Russia and another set on Mars. Sherriff scoured the second-hand bookstores of L.A. for a copy of the Wells novel, finally found one, read it and decided the book would make an excellent film just as it stood — so he wrote a script that closely followed the novel and it did make a marvelous film. (Some of the touches that Carlos Clarens and others considered especially characteristic of Whale — notably the long speech in which the Invisible Man explains the perils of his condition, including that his food is visible until he digests it and he can’t go out in rain or fog because those conditions would give him away, it’s awkward for him to climb stairs because “we’re so used to watching our feet” and even dirt under his fingernails can give him away — were taken almost verbatim from the Wells novel.)

I probably wouldn’t have made this connection if I hadn’t been reading more of David Sheff’s memoir of his son’s drug addiction, Beautiful Boy, while in line at the screening (I’m reading it in counterpoint with the son’s own book about his experiences, Tweak), but in addition to all its other qualities The Invisible Man, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, seems powerfully metaphoric for substance abuse and the problems it creates not only for the abuser but for his or her loved ones. Both books were originally written towards the end of the 19th century, when morphine, heroin and cocaine were still legal and their horrendous adverse effects were only just becoming known — and I suspect both Stevenson and Wells were aware of the burgeoning awareness of the effects of drug addiction and consciously modeled their stories around it. The Invisible Man is the story of a person who takes a powerful drug and leaves his surrogate “family” to live in isolation and practice his habit in secret, and at least two aspects of the movie rang incredibly true to me in light of what both Sheffs were writing about in their books: the statement of Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), the Invisible Man, that the drugs he was taking “seemed to clear my brain” (when in fact they were driving him crazy!) and the reaction of his surrogate “family” — his employer, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers, in a serious and un-campy role almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played Clarence the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life); his fiancée, Cranley’s daughter Flora (Gloria Stuart in a marvelous performance — she did say the three best directors she ever worked for were Whale, John Ford and James Cameron); and his colleague, Dr. Arthur Kemp (William Harrigan, such a singularly overbearing screen presence that instead of regarding it as tragedy when Griffin kills him, we’re thinking to ourselves, “Good riddance”), who’s also after Flora — when he turns up is to want to protect him and help “cure” him even though he’s actually confessed to them that he’s become a murderer and a terrorist.

The emotions ring true even in a film with a plot premise so fantastic as this one — and Whale’s love of eccentric characters shows through in the casting of Forrester Harvey and Una O’Connor as the husband and wife who manage the Lion’s Head pub in the tiny village of Iping where the story begins. Though there’s one major slip-up in the dressing of the Iping pub set I’d never noticed before (the dartboard is an American-style one instead of a British one), for the most part the atmosphere is flawlessly evoked and the three doors O’Connor’s character has to open to get from behind the bar to anywhere else in the building practically become a character in themselves. The film isn’t particularly scary — it’s really more of a science-fiction thriller than a horror movie — but it’s gripping throughout, well staged (I couldn’t help but wonder how Whale instructed his actors to double over and fall down when they were supposedly being punched by the Invisible Man), and Claude Rains’ performance is utterly convincing even though he gives it almost exclusively by voice alone. (According to, many of the scenes showing Rains as the Invisible Man were done with a body double — they involved wrapping the actor in black velvet and filming him against a black backdrop, both of which became clear when the negative was developed and could be processed in — and for scenes in which he’s wearing only a shirt or smoking a cigarette, the props were the only objects in the scene that would register photographically; Rains did a lot of these scenes himself but one could readily imagine that he wouldn’t have wanted to put himself through a lot of the subsidiary action, and his double was apparently taller and had a more prominent nose than Rains.)

Little touches like how he softens his intonations when Flora’s name is mentioned — to show that, even though monocaine, the drug he’s used to make himself invisible (in the sequel, The Invisible Man Returns, the drug has become “duocaine” and I remember joking that for the third film in the series they were going to make it “tricaine”), has turned him into a megalomaniac, he still has enough of a soft side that he responds to the name of his lover. Like Whale’s other horror (broadly defined) films for Universal, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man is a marvelously sophisticated film, capable of entertaining and even moving audiences even after the “horrific” images have become so familiar that they’re simply no longer scary.

Incidentally, the “Trivia” section on this film has an account of how Rains got the part that differs from the ones I’d read before; the stories agree that Universal wanted to cast Boris Karloff as the Invisible Man, but claims that Whale wanted Rains from the get-go because he thought Rains’ voice sounded “more intellectual” than Karloff’s (which seems hard to believe!). The version I’d heard before was that Karloff was offered the part but turned it down because the character would never be seen on screen until the very last scene (an interesting inversion of Bela Lugosi’s giving Karloff his big chance by turning down Frankenstein because the Monster had no dialogue!), and Whale sought out Rains because he’d never made a film before (actually, he had, but they’d all been small parts in minor English productions) and he liked the idea of casting the Invisible Man with an actor whose face was unknown to movie audiences so no one would have a mental image of what he looked like. — 10/24/08

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Mysterious Doctor (Warners, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the next film on the tape, The Mysterious Doctor, though far more sensibly plotted, was pretty much a mediocre wash — one of those films that just drains an hour out of your life without either being good enough to be memorable entertainment or bad enough to be actively displeasing. It’s a Warners “B” (just 56 minutes, though so sluggishly paced it seems 12 minutes longer than The Mask of Fu Manchu when in fact it’s 12 minutes shorter!), directed by Ben Stoloff in 1943 from a script by Richard Weil, set in the Welsh mining country in contemporary times, and within five minutes Weil has dropped us enough hints that we can tell the so-called “headless ghost” that’s terrorizing the village in which the thing takes place is going to turn out to be an all-too-natural human being and the plot will have something to do with the war.

The title character, played by Forrester Harvey (the father of the young girl the monster drowns in the original Frankenstein) [actually, he wasn’t, though Forrester Harvey IS in the movie — M.G.C., 10/23/08], is an agent of the British government sent to the Welsh town to reopen a tin mine whose products are needed for the war effort, only to find that a centuries-old superstition has made the local villagers determined never to work in the mine or allow it to produce again.

The star is John Loder, playing a (seemingly) beneficent aristocrat who turns out to be a German “sleeper” whose family settled in Wales in the time of King George I and opened the mine in the first place; according to the last-minute explanation he was called back to Germany by Hitler and ordered to make sure the mine never reopened. Eleanor Parker, playing the only significant female role (the girlfriend of a British army officer who’s determined to get the mine reopened), plays with the kind of authority that made it clear she deserved (and eventually got) better assignments than this, and Matt Willis (who played Bela Lugosi’s werewolf assistant in the Stoloff-produced, Lew Landers-directed Return of the Vampire at Columbia the following year) is genuinely moving as the local retarded man who helps Ms. Parker unravel the plot. Warners filmed it in all-out imitation of the Universal style — lots of on-set fog and gnarled tree trunks, shadowy lighting and characters wandering around either expressing or forestalling sinister motives — but at least at Universal the film would have had a stronger, more ambiguous plot! — 10/25/03


The movie was The Mysterious Doctor, the companion piece to The Return of Doctor “X” on the DVD I’d just recorded from TCM, and it was a pretty good piece even though it got boring after a while. It was a 57-minute Warners “B” set in Cornwall (which one commentator made the mistake of putting in England instead of Wales), in which a mysterious man named Dr. Frederick Holmes (Lester Matthews) shows up at the town of Morgan’s Head while doing a “walking tour” of Cornwall — in 1943 (when this film was made), in the middle of World War II! Morgan’s Head gets its name from a legend that two families were squabbling over control of the local mine (the synopsis identifies it as a tin mine but I don’t recall anything in Richard Weil’s “original” screenplay that stated exactly what mineral they had been mining there), the Morgans and the Lelands, and Leland killed and decapitated Morgan, but Morgan survived as a ghost and walked around in search of his missing head.

Ever since then, the townspeople have assumed the mine was haunted and have refused to work it — with the result that it’s been sitting idle — though it’s not at all clear how the townspeople have been surviving in the meantime except it does seem to involve the largesse of the surviving Leland heir, Sir Henry Leland (John Loder, top-billed). The one inn in Morgan's Head is owned by Simon Tewksbury (Frank Mayo), who dresses in an old-fashioned executioner’s hood — apparently because his own face is badly scarred underneath, though I couldn’t help but think it was because he was a member of a Wars of the Roses re-enactment society. There’s also a mysterious man who parachutes down from the sky near the town and is suspected of being an enemy agent infiltrated by the Germans, but he’s never found and the only purpose of this plot twist is to give the townspeople an excuse to suspect Dr. Holmes of being the enemy paratrooper.

Most of the film consists of a lot of aimless running around on a quite good studio soundstage-“exterior” set by Charles Novi with great, billowing banks of fog that made one wonder how Warners got so much dry ice diverted their way during the middle of the war. Director Ben Stoloff shows much more of a sense of atmosphere than he had in his previous low-level potboilers for RKO, moving his actors (including the young Eleanor Parker as the female lead, town girl Letty Carstairs, who inevitably falls for British lieutenant Christopher “Kit” Hilton, played by a personable fellow named Bruce Lester) efficiently around Novi’s stunning set, but it’s a pretty aimless movie all in all because all that seems to happen is that various people run around the sets, presumably either chasing each other or in search of some valuable secret. The eventual payoff, which was far less surprising than Richard Weil seemed to think it was, was that Sir Henry Leland was really a German agent assigned to keep the tin mine (or whatever it was) from reopening and thereby helping the British war effort, and in order to do so he had donned a costume making himself look like Morgan’s headless ghost — while Dr. Holmes (ya remember the mysterious doctor?) was really an agent of the British government there to get the mine reopened so it could contribute whatever it was to the war effort.

In the end, the real heir to the mine turns out to be the half-witted Bart Redmond (Matt Willis, who a year later would play the werewolf sidekick of Bela Lugosi’s Count Armand Tesla in Columbia’s The Return of the Vampire — and he was actually quite a good horror actor, expert at pathos and essentially channeling Dwight Frye in both those roles), and Letty, seemingly acting as trustee, gets him to reopen the mine and the workers sing a song and sound like they’re about to go all socialist-realist on us as they return to work it and extract … well, whatever. The Mysterious Doctor had the makings of a quite good little atmospheric quasi-horror film (one could imagine what Val Lewton could have done with a concept like this!) but too much of it seemed like aimless running-around and the actors, though personable, were nothing special — though I give John Loder points for being as credible as a villain as he’d been as a hero in Hitchcock’s Sabotage and other films! — 10/23/08

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Return of Doctor “X” (Warners, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One was The Return of Doctor “X,” which despite its title is not a sequel to the original Doctor “X” from 1932. This was made in 1939 and was a Warner Brothers “B” which has the unusual distinction of being the only horror film Humphrey Bogart ever made. (Yes, that’s right — Alfred Hitchcock made a musical, Waltzes from Vienna, and Humphrey Bogart made a horror film.) Bogart plays Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Cain”), a mad surgeon who two years before the film’s action begins starved a baby to death to see how long it would take to die, was tried and convicted of murder, was executed and then was brought back to life by another mad surgeon, John Litel (so far this has less in common with Doctor “X” than it does with The Walking Dead, a 1936 film in which Boris Karloff was an execution victim who was similarly revived by scientific means — and Bogart’s makeup, including a white, pallid face and a grey streak through his hair, was patterned on Karloff’s in the earlier film).

The good guys are reporter Wayne Morris and junior surgeon Dennis Morgan, who stumble onto a series of murders in which the victims, all with Type One blood (in this movie the blood types have numbers instead of the familiar letters A, B, AB and O), are drained of their blood — by Humphrey Bogart, who needs Type One blood to prolong his already artificially prolonged existence. Bogart actually acts the part with an odd dignity and grace, but that’s about the only positive thing about this ridiculous movie, which is directed by Vincent Sherman (who later went on to direct — and sleep with — both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) with almost none of the horrific atmosphere required to make such a silly storyline even halfway credible. (Just about any director on the contract list at Universal could have done it better — but then Universal specialized in this sort of movie.) — 1/20/98


The film was The Return of Doctor “X,” which I’d recorded earlier this week and for which I’ve always had a kind of twisted affection even though it’s not a very good film. It was made at Warner Bros. in 1939 and features Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role — as the mysterious Dr. Marshall Quesne (pronounced “Cain”), pasty-faced, white-streaked sidekick to blood specialist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) at Jules Memorial Hospital. Curiously, Bogart is billed third in the opening credits but first in the closing ones, though in terms of on-screen time the film’s real principals are Wayne Morris as hotshot New York Morning Dispatch reporter Walter “Wichita” Garrett (the nickname is his home town, where he previously worked) and Dennis Morgan as Dr. Mike Rhodes, Dr. Flegg’s open assistant (as opposed to Quesne, whom he keeps hidden and only works with at home).

The action of this film, written by William J. Makin (“original” story) and Lee Katz (script) and directed by Vincent Sherman with more verve and esprit than a pretty silly plot line called for, begins when Garrett shows up at a fancy hotel to interview star actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys, who looks pretty cadaverous even before the script tells us she is!), who’s just come from Europe to be featured in a big Broadway production — only when he gets to her room, she’s been stabbed just under the heart and all her blood is gone. Accordingly, Garrett phones a big scoop into the Morning Dispatch that Merrova is dead — only the next morning she turns up alive and ready to sue the paper for $100,000.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rhodes is supposed to be assisting Dr. Flegg at the hospital in an operation for which they need a transfusion of Type One blood (for some reason the blood types in this movie have numbers instead of the letters — A, B, AB and O — we’re familiar with today). They plan to call in professional blood donor Stanley Rodgers (John Ridgely) but can’t reach him on the phone — and later they find out that he has been murdered in his room, and his blood, too, has been entirely drained from his body. Dr. Rhodes finds a blood sample at the scene of Rodgers’ murder and examines it under a microscope — and to his astonishment it’s like no blood he’s ever seen before, neither human nor animal.

It turns out that Dr. Flegg has been conducting experiments with the intent of developing a synthetic form of blood that can be used in place of the real thing for transfusions and operations, and after Merrova was murdered he used his synthetic blood to revive her — only it didn’t work for more than about a day or two. It also turns out that the mysterious Marshall Quesne is really Maurice Xavier, who two years earlier did an experiment in which he deliberately starved a child to see how long it would take to die. For this he was arrested, convicted and executed — only Dr. Flegg claimed the body, had an empty coffin buried in his place, and brought him back to life with his blood substitute and various Frankenstein-esque electronic gizmos. However, Dr. Flegg’s synthetic blood was no more able to keep Quesne, a.k.a. Xavier, alive than it had been for Angela Merrova — and as a result he had to go out and kill people (including Merrova and Rodgers) to obtain genuine Type One blood to keep himself alive.

It’s a silly movie for Bogart to have done at this point in his career, and he’s pretty obviously miscast ( claims the part was actually intended for Boris Karloff, who’d done the similarly plotted The Walking Dead at Warners three years earlier and in 1939 was defying the studio system by maintaining non-exclusive contracts at four studios: Universal, Columbia, Warners and Monogram; and Bogart said of the film, “I had a part that somebody like Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played. I was this doctor, brought back to life, and the only thing that nourished this poor bastard was blood. If it had been Jack Warner’s blood, or Harry’s, or Pop’s, maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much. The trouble was, they were drinking mine and I was making this stinking movie”), but he’s enough of a professional that not only does he manage to come through without embarrassment but he actually brings true pathos to the role.

Though he has surprisingly few scenes, he plays the part as a wounded man of science, genuinely upset and unable to conceive of why people would disapprove of his actions, alienated from the world around him but still wanting to be part of it, and going about his high-tech vampirism with a grim determination not all that different from the Bogart of the gangster films that were his stock in trade at the time: neither enjoying murder nor being repulsed by it but simply accepting it as a grim necessity for his own survival. It’s a remarkable and unforgettable performance even though Bogart hated making this movie and, not surprisingly, never dabbled in the horror genre again — and the title is a “cheat,” promising a sequel to Doctor “X,” the far more accomplished Warners horror production of 1932 with a true horror cast (headed by Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray!) and brilliantly eerie direction by Michael Curtiz (also helped by two-strip Technicolor) but delivering a far less original and interesting movie. Still, The Return of Doctor “X” is a likable movie revealing that Bogart’s acting skills could extend to horror. — 10/23/08

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kabluey (Whitewater Films, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film turned out to be something I hadn’t expected — a comedy masterpiece: Kabluey, a 2006 (that’s the copyright date; lists it as from 2007, though come to think of it the movie has to be more recent than 2006 because the Iraq War “surge” is a plot element) laff-riot written, directed by and starring Scott Prendergast, who had he been born in 1900 instead of 1970 would probably have had a great career in silent comedy. Here he plays Salman (“as in ‘Rushdie,’” he helpfully explains when another character in the film stumbles over his name), the ne’er-do-well brother of Noah (Phil Thoden), a National Guardsman who was tapped for duty in Iraq and whose tour there has just been extended as part of the “surge.” Noah’s wife Leslie (Lisa Kudrow, top-billed) is about to lose health insurance coverage for herself and, more importantly, her two sons Lincoln (Landon Henninger) and Cameron (Cameron Wofford), unless she goes back to work immediately. Needing someone who can look after the kids while she’s away, she sends for brother-in-law Salman — whom we meet in Nevada, where his car (a used car he picked up for $250 — and you can readily imagine what $250 buys you in a car today!) has just caught fire and stranded him.

He shows up with one carry-on suitcase, explaining that all his other belongings are in storage either in Nevada or Vermont (the locale where the film takes place is unspecified but I think we’re meant to assume it’s Austin, Texas, where it actually was shot), and of course his nephews take an instant dislike to him — “I’m going to kill you,” Cameron mutters to him under his breath; and when Leslie insists that her boys are just wonderful kids an exasperated Salman says, “That’s spin!” But though there are a few good verbal gags in Kabluey, most of its laughs are visual — and Prendergast has somehow managed to recapture the seemingly lost silent-comedy art of building one gag on top of another to ever-increasing levels of hilarity.

Leslie arranges for Salman to take a job at the company she works for, BlueNextion, an Internet start-up that pretty much collapsed in the dot-com bust of 2000 and has a huge building which they’re trying to keep from losing by renting out office space. Salman’s job will be to hand out flyers, printed on crimson paper, advertising the office space for rent in the BlueNextion building. Then he finds out that he will have to do this in a costume representing the BlueNextion logo, which is a little blue man with a big head. The suit is not only excruciatingly uncomfortable and so confining Salman can’t put it on or take it off by himself, the visibility is so limited — just a narrow wire-mesh screen the wearer can see out of — that it seems from Prendergast’s P.O.V. shots that BlueNextion has invented the high-tech burka. What’s more, the arms of the suit don’t come with fingers — not even an opposable thumb — which means that it’s literally impossible for anyone to pass a leaflet to anyone else when they’re wearing it. The topper comes when Salman’s boss drives him out to where he’s supposed to be passing out the leaflets (she’s driving a convertible with the top down, which is mandatory because the huge head of the suit ensures that its wearer could not possibly fit into an enclosed car) — and it’s in the middle of farm country, with virtually no foot traffic whatsoever.

The first person he sees is a woman (Teri Garr) in a car who glares at him because she lost her life savings in BlueNextion stock and seeing a life-size version of the company’s logo on the road just freaks her out. Later Salman encounters a road crew who offer him a beer — and there are some great gag scenes of him attempting to grab and open the beer while he’s locked in the suit, until he realizes that he can open the bottom of its zipper just enough to stick his hand out (where, in the one gag in the film that’s in dubious taste, though as with the fart gags in Blazing Saddles it was so funny I didn’t really mind, it looks like he’s shitting out his own hand) — whereupon he drinks the beer and then realizes that he’s just created another problem for himself: now he has to pee.

Kabluey takes a slightly more serious turn in the second half: a friend of Leslie’s who’s planning an elaborate birthday party for her kid sees him by the roadside and offers $100 for him to entertain in the suit as the party’s clown. While he’s there, he realizes not only that Leslie is having an affair with Brad, the owner of BlueNextion (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but Brad is also sleeping with Kathleen (Conchata Ferrell), a young woman whom he’s met on his daily bus rides to the BlueNextion headquarters and whom he’s overheard gossiping about her lover — indeed, Brad’s amorous antics are so extensive one gets the impression he should have named the company BlueSextion — and he plots revenge. His helpers are two people he met at the local grocery store, “CITY MARKET” (whose sign is in red lit letters, except the red covers have fallen off the beginning “C” and terminal “T” so that if we ever saw it at night — which we don’t — it would read “ITY MARKE”).

One is Betty (Christine Taylor), with whom Salman had one of the most diabolical meet-cutes in recent cinema history: he literally led Lincoln and Cameron there on leashes and tied them up outside the market next to the other customer’s dogs, and she came out with a Polaroid camera (an antediluvian bit of technology in the modern age, but the sight of that black box spitting out photos as fast as Betty can snap the shutter is a good deal funnier than the equivalent gag would have been with a digital camera) but whom it’s suggested he has a bit of mutual romantic (and possibly sexual) interest going with after that. Their co-conspirator is a character identified only as “The Cheese” (Rhoades Rader), who as part of a promotion the store is doing on Tillamook cheese is obliged to dress as a giant quarter-slice of cheese — though at least his costume, unlike Salman’s, has holes for his head, arms and legs, so he can walk, talk and manipulate objects normally.

The three of them charge into the motel room where Brad is about to do it with Kathleen, and as Betty fires away with her Polaroid Brad frantically calls out on his cell phone, “Help! I’m being attacked by a giant cheese!” Earlier there’s also a scene in which Cameron escapes from Salman while naked, and Salman and Lincoln — themselves wearing only bath towels — chase him down the residential streets while a neighbor gives them a knowing stare (this film is chock-full of knowing stares). Kabluey is a marvelously funny film that builds to a surprisingly poignant ending — Noah (ya remember Noah? Leslie’s husband and Lincoln’s and Cameron’s father? Actually, you haven’t been able to forget him in the film because, even though he isn’t there physically, a giant photo of him literally hangs over the action at his and Leslie’s house, and it appears to change expression, though that’s probably a trick of the angles at which Prendergast and cinematographer Michael Lohmann shoot it rather than an actually altered photo in each scene) finally returns home — he just shows up at their door, much to their disappointment because Leslie, Lincoln and Cameron had been counting on being able to meet him at the airport — and Salman takes a bittersweet, Chaplinesque departure, driving out of town in yet another on-its-last-legs used car (an old baby-blue Volkswagen Beetle which he got for $350 — “Runs Great!” says the scrawled writing on the rear window, and remembering what happened with Salman’s last used car we think, “Yeah, right … ”) — alone: we kind of hoped Betty would leave town with him but in a way this is better, truer both to Prendergast’s character and to the spirit of silent comedy to which this film owes so much. (I also found myself wondering if the two kids’ names were meant as an “in” joke — Lincoln after President Lincoln and Cameron after Simon Cameron, with whom Lincoln did the back-room deal that gave him the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination and who was rewarded by being appointed Secretary of War, at which job he was so corrupt that within a year Lincoln had fired him and replaced him with Edwin Stanton.)

Village of the Giants (Embassy, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles an item in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 box: one with Mike Nelson instead of Joel Hodgson as the host but still on the Comedy Central channel: the 1965 film Village of the Giants, producer-director-co-writer Bert I. Gordon’s first “take” on the H. G. Wells novel The Food of the Gods. (Eleven years later, Gordon would make a version of The Food of the Gods under Wells’ own title — and it wouldn’t get any better reviews than this one.) This is an uneasy mixture of teen exploitation movie and horror film, and interestingly the teen exploitation parts are better than the so-called horror, which would be unlikely to scare anybody: it starts in a muddy ditch by the side of a road, where a blue Thunderbird has run off the highway and lost a wheel and its teenage occupants — all of whom seem to be wearing polyester pants that have literally been molded on their bodies — get out and have a hot necking party in the mud that, quite frankly, is one of the two best things in the film. (The other is a song by the Beau Brummels — there were five of them and they were Americans, but they still come across as Beatles wanna-bes, though at least pretty good Beatles wanna-bes, good enough that I got annoyed that the MST3K crew were talking through their song.) Then for some reason they realize that the town of Haileyville is only three miles away, and in their muddy polyesters they all walk thither for no apparent reason.

We then cut to Haileyville itself, and Mike (Tommy Kirk) and his girlfriend Merrie (Joy Harmon) are doing some heavy necking of their own on Mike’s parents’ couch (we never actually see any of these kids’ parents at any time during the film!) when there’s an explosion, and it turns out Mike’s younger brother “Genius” (Ronny Howard — and, predictably, the MST3K crew made the obvious jokes about his presence, looking both backward to his stint as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and forward to his directorial career) has mixed yet another of his exploding chemicals. The H. G. Wells connection comes in when “Genius” makes a pink custard that enlarges anything that eats it to giant size, and Mike is instantly struck by the enormous commercial possibilities in artificially enlarged livestock. (The fact that the artificially enlarged meat animals would require equally enlarged quantities of food doesn’t seem to occur to anybody in this film.) The family cat and dog end up enlarged by the magic custard, as do two ducks that happen by — one of whom gets roasted over an open spit and eaten at the teenagers’ latest picnic — and the bad teens from the road crash worm the secret out of “Genius,” enlarge themselves and terrorize the town, sort of (at least they stand around, look intimidating and boss the townspeople around by threatening to hurl telephone poles at them), until “Genius” saves the day and comes up with an antidote in the form of a gas, which he administers from a can billowing orange smoke that he straps on to the back of his bike to launch his gas attack. The terrible giant teens are shrunk to normal size, the good teens make short work of them and this incredibly dorky movie stumbles to an end.

The process work in the movie is so terrible I’m surprised Farciot Edouart, Paramount’s long-time trick-photography whiz, took credit for it — and the script is also silly, but the movie has a certain je ne sais quoi charm and some of the hot teens of both genders are nice eye candy — and it’s also worth noting that Beau Bridges plays the lead teen villain, though it ranks alongside Michelle Pfeiffer’s female lead in Grease II among the most embarrassing credits ever by an actor who went on to an important career. The MST3K people had a lot of fun with this one, especially when Jack Nitzsche’s music director credit went on and they made the inevitable joke, “That which does not kill me makes me … more musical!”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cry-Baby (Universal, 1990)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie at the library was Cry-Baby, John Waters’ immediate follow-up to Hairspray and his first film following the death of his iconic Transgender star, Divine (though one of the parents in this send-up of 1950’s juvenile-delinquency films is played by someone named Mink Stole, so even though Divine was dead Waters was still recruiting heavy-set drag queens to be in his films) and his first film with a major star, Johnny Depp, perfectly cast as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, leader of a gang of party-boys and party-girls called “The Drapes” in 1954 Baltimore. The story is basically a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of romance between Walker and Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane), “square” granddaughter of grande dame Mrs. Vernon-Williams (a practically movie-stealing Polly Bergen), and how he manages to steal her away from her “square” boyfriend Baldwin (Stephen Mailer) despite getting himself and his whole gang arrested for a gang fight the Squares actually started, which gives Waters the chance to throw in a production number pretty obviously based on the title song of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock.

The plot of this one isn’t all that important, and though there’s an undercurrent of racial comment (especially in the raunchy Black R&B the Drapes listen to — a surprising amount of it rocked-up versions of 1920’s and 1930’s songs like “Cherry” and “Jungle Drums” — versus the bleached-up white rock like “Sh-Boom ,” “A Teenage Prayer” and “Mr. Sandman” the Squares like) it’s clearly not as important a plot element as it was in Waters’ immediately preceding film, Hairspray. Cry-Baby struck both Charles and I as a total delight, full of Waters’ “gimmick” casting (including Patricia Hearst as one of the Drapes’ mothers and former porn star Traci Lords as her daughter — I read Lords’ memoir and she said Waters was very kind and patient with her as he guided her through her, uh, acting debut, and that Johnny Depp was kind enough when they actually performed together but he had the usual formidable entourage keeping them apart when she wasn’t actually acting in a scene with him) and with some marvelous gimmicks, including a long scene that seemed like a parody of the infamous tunnel-with-rats sequence in El Norte (Depp has been imprisoned in a reformatory and he’s attempting to escape through the sewer pipes; he runs into rats and one of the rats seems to be guiding him, only he emerges still in the prison and the rat who led him there is shown visibly and audibly laughing at him on screen), an odd film to be parodied in a movie whose other meta-cinematic references include more predictable ones like Jailhouse Rock, Grease and Rebel Without a Cause (the film ends with a chickie-run, though not the drive-off-a-cliff kind of Rebel but the otherwise better-known version in which two cars barrel towards each other and the first driver that swerves away is the “chicken” — which doesn’t stop Waters from quoting the famous shot from Rebel in which the other cars’ headlights light up to illuminate the scene).

Though it’s not at all a realistic film, Waters’ evocation of the period is generally right (judging from the movies of the time), and I give him points for digging up such obscure early 1950’s R&B records that there was only one song representing the Drapes’ side of the film that I could recall having heard before (Esther Phillips’ “Bad Girl”). Indeed, there are enough original songs in this film it would seem on that ground alone, at least, to be a better candidate for musical adaptation than Hairspray, and both Johnny Depp (who comes off much like the young Elvis in the sort of movie Elvis should have been making all along — though no doubt if Elvis had still been alive when Cry-Baby was filmed Waters would have wanted him for some weird cameo) and Amy Locane had voice doubles, Depp’s being someone named James Intveld and Locane’s being Rachel Sweet, who also co-wrote many of the songs written especially for the film. Charles and I richly enjoyed the movie, finding it as funny as just about anything made in the last 20 years (there’s also a delightful scene in which the inmates of the reform school are made to recite a litany of prayers, starting with blessings to the people who put them there and are guarding them and ending, “God bless Dwight D. Eisenhower, God bless Roy Cohn. God bless Richard Nixon” — though I didn’t recognize him, the guard leading this litany was Willem Dafoe),though Ralph DeLauro’s opinion was clearly different. Ralph did something I’ve never seen him do in years of library filmgoing — instead of giving an introduction he just switched off the lights and hit the play button — and on my way out when I told him how much we’d enjoyed the film, he sniffed, “Not his best.”

Murders in the Rue Morgue (Universal, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran another from the classic Universal horror collections: Murders in the Rue Morgue, one of the unsung masterpieces of the Universal cycle and one of Bela Lugosi’s two best-ever starring vehicles (along with White Zombie, made the same year, also filmed at Universal but for an independent producer who was just renting the space). Oddly, the film began as a consolation prize for its star, Lugosi, and its director, Robert Florey (an actual Frenchman directing a story about Paris — what a novelty!) because Lugosi had turned down the original Frankenstein (supposedly because he didn’t want to play a part without any actual dialogue — a claim supported by the fact that when he finally did play the Frankenstein monster, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, he signed for the film on the basis of a script in which the monster does speak, though the monster’s lines were erased from the final release) and Florey had been taken off the project in favor of James Whale, the British wunderkind who had had hits with Journey’s End (which he’d previously directed on stage) and the 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge.

Florey originally wrote a script for the film that stuck closely to the original 1843 story by Edgar Allan Poe (which was actually an episode in his detective-mystery series featuring the hero, C. Auguste Dupin — called “Pierre Dupin” in the film and played by Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames, who as I once joked to Charles was the one degree of separation between Lugosi and Judy Garland!), but the “suits” at Universal turned it down because they wanted a horror film rather than a mystery, so Florey and his credited writers, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, Richard Schayer and John Huston (credited with “additional dialogue” — he’d got a screenwriting job at Universal because his father, Walter Huston, was making two films there and wanted him on the writing staff, and this was the first film on which John Huston was credited that did not involve his dad), came up with a mélange of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is operating a concession in a carnival sideshow that features an ape called “Erik” (Charles Gemorra, doubled in some scenes by Joe Bonomo and in others by a real chimpanzee, even though the character is supposed to be a gorilla), whom he is exhibiting as proof positive of the theory of evolution. (The setting is 1845, two years after Poe published the original story and 14 years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.) Mirakle wants to mingle Erik’s blood with that of a human woman in order to prove his theory, but so far he’s experimented with two women, unsuccessfully, and disposed of their corpses via a Sweeney Todd-ish trap door under his experimental setup — which actually involves chaining the unfortunate women to an X-shaped cross that looks more like something you’d find in an S/M dungeon than in a scientific laboratory. The film opens with a series of traveling shots through a Caligari-esque Paris (this film is probably the closest a mainstream Hollywood producer ever came to the Caligari look; the art directors, Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Herman Rosse, went all-out to suggest the Expressionist sets of Caligari), with buildings that slant and hang uncomfortably over the people who walk by them, before we discover the carnival and see Dupin there with his girlfriend, Camille L’Esplanaye (Sidney Fox, top-billed — according to Bette Davis, she and studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. were having an affair, which meant she got quite a few parts that were beyond her abilities, including the lead in Strictly Dishonorable for which Davis had been brought to Hollywood and Universal in the first place), his comic-relief roommate Paul (Bert Roach, who unlike most of the “comic relief” figures in these movies is actually genuinely funny) and his girlfriend Mignette (Edna Marion). Not surprisingly, when Dupin and Camille see the gorilla, the beast takes a shine to Camille (even taking the bonnet off her head and cradling it) and an instant aversion to Dupin, “planting” a Beauty and the Beast-like attraction between the two that almost exactly mirrors the plot of the as-yet-unmade King Kong.

In the next scene, Mirakle picks up a character identified only as “Woman of the Streets” (a truly bizarre credit for Arlene Francis — and, aside from a part in Orson Welles’ never-released filmed inserts for the play Too Much Johnson in 1938, she didn’t make another movie until All My Sons, also for Universal, in 1948!) and, right after two men have killed each other over her (it’s that kind of movie, getting its shocks as much from the amorality of the overall setting as from any specific scene), Mirakle takes her to his dungeon, straps her to the S/M cross and gets ready to perform his experiment, only first he looks at her blood under his microscope and declares it unsuitable: “Your BLOOD is as BLACK as your SINS!” Lugosi thunders in his most hysterically anguished tones (obviously, in this “pre-Code” film, we’re supposed to read this as an infection with syphilis or some other similarly intractable STD), and just then the “Woman of the Streets” expires and Lugosi’s manservant Janos (Noble Johnson) throws the switch on the trap door and pitches her body into the Seine. In this version, Pierre Dupin is a medical student who bribes the coroner to get interesting specimens from the morgue so he can study them, and he’s the one who makes the connection between the latest victim and the previous two; he sees the injection marks (which serve the same purpose in this film as the throat punctures in Dracula) and realizes, once he examines the victims’ blood under his microscope, that they died from a reaction from the ape’s blood injected into them.

Meanwhile, Camille receives a replacement bonnet from Mirakle — indicating, since she’d refused to tell him where she lived, that he’s been stalking her — and one night Mirakle sends Erik to kill Camille’s mother (Betty Ross Clarke) and abduct her. In the one major incident of the film actually taken from Poe’s story, Camille’s mother is shoved up the chimney of her room and three witnesses, having heard the chatter of an ape, insist that the killer spoke Italian, Danish and German, respectively. Dupin has to fight off a stupid police prefect (Brandon Hurst) who wants to arrest him, but eventually he figures out that Camille has been kidnapped and taken to Mirakle’s redoubt in the Rue Morgue, whereupon he chases him there with a squad of gendarmes in tow, and Dupin rescues Camille just before Mirakle can inject her with the ape serum, Erik kills Mirakle, Dupin kills Janos and Erik and, in the end, Mirakle’s body is received by the coroner.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is notable not only for its audacity — its links of sexual perversion and murder are pretty strong stuff now and an indication of some of the things Hollywood’s kinkier directors could get away with in the early 1930’s — but also the other, later films it influenced: King Kong (in this one the ape is normal-sized, but certainly the theme of an ape who runs wild through a city and can only be tamed by a woman is common to both films!), The Mummy and Mystery of the Wax Museum (also about demented geniuses who kidnap women and not only put them through procedures that will kill them but seem convinced that they're doing these women a favor by doing so!), as well as all those dreary mad-scientist movies Lugosi would ultimately make at PRC, Monogram and even cheaper studios. Though somewhat hamstrung by the lack of a music score, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a far better film than the 1931 Dracula: the writing is sharper and wittier, the direction more assured (Florey keeps the camera in almost constant motion, propelling us into the action instead of forcing us to watch it at a distance) and Lugosi’s performance — perhaps because he wasn’t playing a part he’d done on stage for two years — fresher and more vital.