Friday, June 25, 2010

Two 20th Century-Fox 1942 Horror "B"’s: “The Undying Monster” and “Dr. Renault’s Secret”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I had watched a couple of genuinely engaging horror movies from 20th Century-Fox, both “B”’s — one lasting 63 minutes, the other just 58 — in a brief attempt by Fox to play on Universal’s turf. These were included in the two Fox Horror Classics boxed sets along with more prestigious movies — Chandu the Magician (1932), The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and Dragonwyck (1946), all of which except Chandu were really more Gothic melodramas than horror films (The Lodger was a remake of a Marie Belloc Lowndes novel that had been filmed twice before, including the famous 1926 silent version with Alfred Hitchcock directing; and Dragonwyck was a potboiler adaptation of a popular novel that had more in common with Rebecca than anything that would have been considered horror, then or now).

The one we watched last night was The Undying Monster, a werewolf tale obviously dashed off by Fox to take advantage of the success of Universal’s The Wolf Man the year before — though the source for the story was a 1922 novel by one Jessie Douglas Kerruish (a woman, as if you couldn’t guess from the “i” in her first name) that has been hailed over the years as one of the most inventive and original werewolf novels ever published. Alas, screenwriters Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby used little but the basic situation of Kerruish’s book — and not even all that much of it. Kerruish’s book had told a tale of a British (in the novel they’re Welsh; in the movie they’re English, perhaps to avoid comparisons since The Wolf Man had been set in Wales) family named Hammand, who for centuries have lived under a lycanthropic curse, either because a Hammand had sold his soul to the devil hundreds of years back or the Hammands generally had dabbled in black magic, unleashed some dark forces and frequently died young as a consequence. The curse is expressed in a rhyme: “Where grow pines and firs amain/Under stars, sans heat or rain/Chief of Hammand, beware thy bane.” The last two surviving Hammands are Oliver and his sister Swanhild, and in order to protect her Oliver engages a psychic detective, Luna Bartendale, and the two of them go through old records and buildings looking for clues in an elaborate search that sounds from the synopsis I read as if Dan Brown were to do a werewolf novel.

Charles actually found a couple of sources on the Internet to download the entire book — which should be an interesting “read” — and I already suspect that had they stuck closer to what Kerruish wrote they’d have had the basis for a far more interesting movie. What they finally filmed was a story that took Kerruish’s basic material and reworked it into as close a copy of The Wolf Man as they could manage without inviting a plagiarism suit from the famously litigious Universal: the family name is spelled the more familiar way, “Hammond,” and though Oliver (John Howard) retains his first name from the novel, his sister takes on a less off-the-wall moniker, Helga (Heather Angel, reunited with Howard from the series of Bulldog Drummond movies they made together at Paramount in the late 1930’s)—though that’s still an unusual name for a British woman. Instead of a female psychic detective, the lead is a male forensic scientist working with the local police, Robert Curtis (James Ellison), who’s also involved as assistant to Dr. Jeff Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher, a decade after he became a horror-film legend by inadvertently reading the Scroll of Thoth and reviving Boris Karloff in The Mummy, and going mad when he saw what he’d done). Hayward and Jacoby deserve credit for making Helga Hammond a far more interesting character than the usual screaming female common in these productions — she’s intelligent, courageous and eager to find out the Hammond family secret virtually everyone else in the movie is trying to cover up.

Eventually, to no one’s particular surprise (at least no one in the audience’s, anyway), Oliver Hammond himself turns out to be the werewolf, and his transformations are explained as delusions: he was so obsessed with the idea that his family was cursed that he believed himself to be a werewolf and killed people the way this mythical monster would (though that doesn’t explain how he actually transforms physically into a hirsute creature in the final scene). The movie is talky and has long exposition scenes in which virtually nothing happens, and also suffers from too much of the unfunny “comic relief” producers of this sort of movie thought they needed, but it has one saving grace: the direction by German expat John Brahm. (Indeed, the first Fox Horror Classics boxed set could have been billed as a tribute to Brahm, since all three movies in it — The Undying Monster, The Lodger and Hangover Square — were directed by him.) For years I’d pretty much written off Brahm as an inferior Fritz Lang imitator — a judgment based particularly on his 1939 film Let Us Live, a blatant ripoff of Lang’s You Only Live Once that cast the same male star, Henry Fonda, and unlike Lang’s film had an out-and-out happy ending that made a mockery of the material — but these three Fox Gothics are among the finest looking and most atmospheric movies in the Gothic genre ever turned out by a Hollywood studio.

Brahm pursues the chiaroscuro look associated with German directors — and later with film noir in general — so relentlessly that even otherwise bland exposition scenes, like an exchange between Dr. Colbert and two other characters in the doctor’s lab, get the full half-shadow treatment (and the DVD transfer is utterly superb, doing full justice to Brahm’s visual design and cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s superb execution of it). There’s even a shameless cop of Joseph Lewis’s famous fireplace-point-of-view shot in The Invisible Ghost, and Brahm uses the effect for the same reason Lewis did: to liven up visually an otherwise dull dialogue scene. The Undying Monster was made at a time when aesthetic leadership in American horror films was passing from Universal to Val Lewton’s unit at RKO, and there are scenes here which could have used Lewton’s celebrated restraint (to me the ending would have been far more powerful if we’d never seen the werewolf and his presence had been suggested, Lewton-style, with sound effects alone), but for the most part The Undying Monster is a tough, interesting movie, not the film it would have been if Fox had actually used Kerruish’s novel instead of just embracing it as a defense against a Universal lawsuit, but handsomely produced (many of the sets, both interiors and exteriors, had been built for the 1939 film The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film) and with glorious atmospherics by Brahm — who would far surpass his work here two years later in The Lodger, with a bigger budget, a stronger story and a more able cast (George Sanders, Merle Oberon and Laird Cregar).

The night before last Charles and I had run Dr. Renault’s Secret, a film Fox released one month before The Undying Monster and based on a book by a more famous author than Jessie Douglas Kerruish; Gaston Leroux, who published The Phantom of the Opera in 1911, Cheri-Bibi in 1916 (this was the basis for the quite interesting 1931 MGM film The Phantom of Paris, originally intended for Lon Chaney, Sr. but cast with John Gilbert after Chaney’s death the previous year) and the basis for Dr. Renault’s Secret, a book called Balaoo, in 1922. Dr. Renault’s Secret had a stronger cast than The Undying Monster — it starred J. Carrol Naish as Noel (no last name), the strange assistant of Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco), whose titular “secret” is that Noel is really an ape, transformed by Dr. Renault’s unique medical procedures into a rather twitchy and slow-witted human, but one whose ape nature periodically comes out and leads him to kill. The derivation from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is pretty obvious — though Dr. Renault’s Secret hardly has the hallucinatory power of the 1933 film The Island of Lost Souls, the first (and by far the best) of the three films made from Wells’ novel — and so is its debt to Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (also the source for an early-1930’s film that’s considerably better than Dr. Renault’s Secret).

Both this film and The Undying Monster suffer from the decision of the “suits” at Fox to make them mysteries as well as horror films; Val Lewton was able to get away with keeping the audience in suspense as to whether or not there was anything supernatural about the events depicted, but these Fox movies hewed much closer to the more blatant Universal horror school and their “surprises” are so obvious you find yourself thinking. “Will they drop this pretense and admit the monster exists already?” George Zucco’s performance really makes this film, even though he’s a bit restrained and his more outwardly florid acting in his similarly plotted films for PRC — The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk and The Flying Serpent — is frankly a lot more fun. Aside from him and Naish, the rest of the cast — Shepperd Strudwick as the male lead, Renault’s assistant Dr. Larry Forbes; and Lynne Roberts as Dr. Renault’s daughter Madelon, with whom Forbes is unsurprisingly in love — is serviceable but hardly at the level of Heather Angel’s searing acting in The Undying Monster.

The director is Harry Lachman, who made one genuinely great film — the 1935 Dante’s Inferno, with Spencer Tracy as a carnival barker who becomes an entertainment magnate, then overextends himself and loses it all; it’s a good melodrama and it contains two marvelous sequences, a 10-minute montage set in Dante’s Hell (designed and executed by Rudolph Maté, the great French cinematographer and, later, director who got the job because Lachman had befriended him in Europe) and a closing scene in which Tracy’s pleasure ship catches fire and Rita Hayworth (under her original last name, Cansino) makes her film debut in a spectacular dance sequence. Lachman’s name is on another worthwhile movie, the 1936 Laurel and Hardy comedy Our Relations, but then it didn’t take much to direct a Laurel and Hardy comedy — all you had to do was make sure the cameras were pointed at them and in focus — and most of the rest of his output seems to have been Fox “B”’s, including some of the later Sidney Toler Charlie Chans. Lachman’s work here is fast-paced — it had to be to get the story told in 57 minutes — and good-looking, taking full advantage of all the standing sets on the Fox lot, but it’s hardly as inspired as John Brahm’s work in The Undying Monster even though the film as a whole is better constructed, more action-oriented and with far less deadly-dull exposition than The Undying Monster (thank you, writers William Bruckner and Robert F. Metzler).