Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Old Dark House (1932)

Husband and wife Philip and Margaret Waverton are on a road trip to a small country town with their friend Roger Penderel, but get caught in a storm. They seek refuge in a large house, populated by an elderly brother and sister who seem a little on the odd side, and have a butler in their employee who's a scarred mute with violent tendencies once he gets drinking. Soon, two more unexpected visitors come in from the storm-Gladys, and Sir William Porterhouse. Everyone has a nice enough time with each-other, with some parties having thoughtful discussions, while others sneak off to get hammered, but unfortunately the butler decides to have a drink too. And you know what that means...

Thought lost for decades until its fortuitous discovery in the 1960s, The Old Dark House is an experience that didn't disappoint! It's a rare film that can go missing for decades, then live up to the mystique it's built up. Coming from 1932, The Old Dark House is a good old fashioned horror film  that also has a laugh along with the audience. What's great about the movie is how well it handles both its genres! Just because it's a comedy, doesn't mean it's a goofy farce. Rather, everything meshes really well together!

The atmosphere builds up well, from the raging storm outside, to the ominous place of refuge, which sits alone on the landscape and cuts a large figure in the night. Inside is a spooky Victorian Gothic design, with billowing curtains, low lighting, and cobwebs decorating the rooms. It's your typical haunted house, and looks like a wonderful place to spend a Halloween. All of the chills are only increased by the hilarious and creepy family members, from the grouchy and staunchly religious Rebecca and the irreverent Horace, to the mysterious Roderick and pyromaniac Saul, and the temperamental butler Morgan.

The comedy here is often very funny, with a lot of it coming from the dialogue, and the actions of the characters. From casually discussing a batch of roses on the fire after commenting on how nicely they've been prepared, to Horace's insistence of calming everyone down with potatoes. My favourite line was from Saul-"You see, I am a clever man also. That is why we understand one another. That is why you understood so quickly that I wanted to kill you". There's lots more to laugh at, and I shall reveal none of it.

One weird thing though is how calm the ending is. After a tumble off a bannister [railing], the threat is completely defused, and there's no big crazy finale or huge conflagration. That would've been a predictable route to go, but this is a movie built on following all the tried and true cliches in fun ways. As it stands the ending is ok, but perhaps just a little too uneventful.

The colourful characters are what really make this movie. The Fem family are a loopy bunch, all with their own quirks. Just because he's only the butler, that doesn't mean Karloff is a minor presence. Far from it, he's the one who sets all the dangerous events of the story into motion.

While Roger started out a bit annoying (in an intentional and amusing way), he became more endearing once Gladys enters the picture. Their romance is hilariously rushed, perhaps deliberately so, but the characters and actors do still have chemistry. Roger can even be quite serious and heroic when the occasion calls for it, and you can see why the Wavertons are friends with him despite his snark. Roger and Gladys end up being so fun that they eclipse Philip and Margaret, who don't really do a great deal as the film rocks on. They're still likeable enough though. Sir Willian Porterhouse, meanwhile starts out as a bit of a loudmouth, and somewhat abrasive guy, but gets quite an emotional and character informing moment.

The acting is all enjoyable. The protagonists do good jobs, coming off as distinct, as do the villains. Karloff (credited only by his surname in ALL CAPS) doesn't get the biggest of roles when compared to later movies in his career, and he doesn't speak a word here, but he's still an intimidating figure. With figures like him, Ernest Thesiger, and Charles Laughton, there's lots of thespians to enjoy here!

The Old Dark House is a wonderfully spooky and funny film, and I can't recommend it enough! It's proof positive that sometimes older is better...

The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)

Young doctor Clare Wyatt has been called up by an old associate Dr. Laurience to participate in his controversial new studies on the human soul. Things go well at first, but after having been picked up by an interested financier, Laurience's remaining reputation is ruined in front of the scientific community, who scoff at his ideas. The financier Lord Haslewood is furious, demanding the termination of Laurience and the destruction of his equipment, but the doctor is too fast, transferring the mind of his bitter invalid 'friend' Clayton into Haslewood's body, and letting the real lord die in Clayton's terminal body. Now with unlimited funding, Laurience sets about using his research not for the betterment of mankind as originally intended, but to take revenge on his enemies, and gain the love of Clare...

The Man Who Changed His Mind is a film with mixed-up pacing/storytelling. It starts off with Clare being hired by her old friend despite warnings for her to stay far away from him, and that he's up to creepy experiments, then Laurience is picked up by an optimistic sponsor, given great funding and a public platform to speak about his theories, where he's publicly ridiculed and driven off the scientific stage, going mad. It feels like we should've had the acceptance then shock and ridicule first, then the old associate going to the creepy small town house where the doctor has since taken up residence, where the townspeople all whisper and shudder behind their backs about the experiments he's committing. Instead it feels the other way round.

This aside, the story here is quite well written, with the villain following a noticeable arc, from an isolated and beleaguered scientist who's still open to the public, but gets burned so severely by their harsh reaction that he loses his mind and is driven to commit terrible acts to probe himself over the world, and to get his revenge.

Clare is a very strong protagonist. Intelligent, determined, and proactive, she holds her own superbly, and manages to save the day all by herself! There's never a moment where a man does something for her and gets her out of danger, and instead she's always the one in control of herself, and the one who sees through Laurience's lies after he's swapped Clayton and Lord Haselwood

The dynamic between Laurience and Clare is really good! For a start, she's not a nurse getting test tubes for him, but is instead a doctor, and a trusted colleague, and he holds a great deal of respect for her, openly acknowledging how important she is to his studies and how he can't go on without her help. After the halfway point it changes considerably, and not for the better as far as poor Clare is concerned. Not for the better as far as the script is concerned either, I feel. While I like that Laurience's intentions towards Clare are him considering her to be his only equal rather than an object of dominance or revenge, I kinda wish they'd kept the positive relationship between the two.

Clayton is quite an amusingly toxic little man, and he gets some funny lines, hilariously bad things to say about women, and one surprisingly deep scene. After the body swap he's living the high life now that he's on easy street, but then just a she's about to chug a glass of beer, he finds out his body has a serious heart condition given his irreverent nature, you'd think him the kind of guy to just chug it down the hatch anyway, but instead we actually get a really good and subtle moment, where he approaches a mirror and muses silently on his mortality. Given he only just left a crippled and dying body, I guess we can imagine he's none too pleased to get himself right back into such a situation.

The title is pretty rubbish, albeit amusingly so. It's of course referring to mind swapping, but it's so poorly worded that it makes it sound like a man deciding whether he should order a pizza, before settling on Chinese food. The Man Who Lost His Mind would've been much better, especially because of the double meaning that'd hold. The film is also knows as The Man Who Lived Again, which is ok but not quite as interesting. Dr. Maniac is another, and it's bloody hilarious.

There's some major overacting involved from some of the players, but everyone mostly does well. Karloff's performance is quite different to other mad scientists he's played, from his way of speaking, to his physical mannerisms, more high pitched and hunched over. While we know he's correct in his theories, he comes across as a crackpot very well, and his quick to anger demeanour in the second half works well. He's downright terrifying in some shots!

Frank Celier is also very impressive! Donald Calthrop is very good as the misanthropic old invalid Clayton, but his body dies at the halfway point, and Celier has to pick up the slack as Clayton in Lord Haslewood's body. He imitates Calthrop very well,  John Loder also impresses in his short turn as Karloff. I applaud the direction in this movie! Anna Lee is a great protagonist, and deserves just as much credit.

The Man Who Changed His Mind isn't perfect, but it's got some great moments of horror, suspense, and intrigue...

The Devil Bat (1940)

Disgruntled chemist Dr. Carruthers is furious about the company he develops perfumes for making millions off his creations while he only gets a 'mere pittance' of tens of thousands of dollars, so he plots a terrible revenge for the Heath and Morton families, creating a giant killer bat that's attracted to a specific scent. Carruthers gives a sample of his shaving lotion to his victims one by one, watching on with glee as they meet horrible ends. Reporter Johnny Layton arrives in the town to investigate what's going on, and starts getting to close to the truth for comfort...

I originally thought The Devil Bat was a Monogram picture. After all, a cheap budget, plus Bela Lugosi, and ultimately in the public domain? But no, it actually came from PRC, an equally cheap company. The low budget of this movie is apparent in a few ways, from the fake bats whose wings barely flap, to obviously re-used newspapers with different headlines each time but otherwise unchanged.

The story here is decent enough. There's a good hook, and even though we the audience know what's happening from the start, it's fun watching the journalist lead edging closer to the truth. The last act takes some fun turns, culminating in a final showdown with Lugosi that ends very well, in a great bit of poetic justice. The climax is pretty thrilling, although the ending is typically abrupt.

The (amusingly named for a Hungarian) dastardly Dr. Carruthers is a suitable villain, and a good motivation makes up for his relative lack of screentime (he gets a decent amount, but quite spread out in places). While it's a motivation a bit alien to people who feel that some money is fine and don't care that they didn't make all the money on Earth, it's still an effective driving force for his character.

While from his first scene Johnny seemed like an annoying smart alec reporter, I found myself quite liking him, and even his comic relief photographer One Shot McGuire isn't too intolerable. I quite liked some of his scenes, like rigging up a fake bat for a photoshoot, and I dug his interactions with the French maid Maxine.

Mary Heath doesn't get a whole lot to do, but she's ok, and assertive when need be, not taking what she sees as a deception lying down. By the way, I can only imagine people asking her in later years how she met her husband. "You two make such a nice couple. How'd you meet?"-"Oh, typical stuff, really. You see, two of my brothers were brutally murdered by a mad scientist's enormous bat monster, and we met and fell for each-other during the investigation". The local police detective is surprisingly friendly with Johnny, even assigning him to the case. Hell, he's kinder to him than Johnny's actual boss!

One last character to mention is minor, but one I appreciated. At the midway point, a radio presenter talks about the devil bat, inviting an expert on the subject over, who not only patently denies the existence of such a bat, but also singles out Johnny's photo as a hoax (in quite an amusing way). When the real devil bat is taken down I was hoping we'd get a follow-up scene with this guy, and we actually do! I didn't expect such an act from a movie like this.

A relatively minor problem, but still a nuisance is how almost every male character in this film looks exactly the same! It got to the point where I briefly thought Mary was having an incestuous relationship by being engaged to her brother, only to realise these were two different characters. Thankfully the devil bat starts 'thinning the herd' as it were, making things clearer to watch.

Speaking of, the characters here aren't incompetent per se, but there were a few times where I was yelling at them. 'It's just a bat! Punch it! Grab its wings then toss or kick it half a mile away!...Hey, you, you're right next to a chair! Use it!'.

The actors here are all pretty fine. Nothing great, but nothing terribly mediocre, while Bela Lugosi is the best screen presence as the scheming antagonist.

I'm probably one of the more charitable people towards The Devil Bat, but I really quite enjoyed myself with it. It's nothing special, but for a b-movie of its kind, it was a very satisfying watch...

Scared to Death (1947)

In a morgue lies a woman dead not from any physical injury, but from a stopped heart, as if she died of sheer fright. Through her narration, we find out the events that led to her death. The woman, Laura, is the bitter wife of  Ward Van Ee, son of a noted Doctor, who Laura is convinced is trying to scare her to death. Strange apparitions soon start to occur involving a sinister green mask, and a figure from the doctor's past also comes to the estate for unknown reasons...

Scared to Death is a film of conflicting tones and quality. As I watched  I was never sure if the movie was creepy and intriguing or stupid and underdeveloped, if the dialogue was intentionally funny and witty, or just unintentionally cheesy. Ultimately the movie was a failure for me. The irreverent characters wore on me too much and the interesting story ground to a dead halt, with people running around from one room to the other yelling at each-other. It's a shame, because the story was very nearly quite fascinating, and even the final reveal is quite good, and would've been improved with a little more foreshadowing.

For all its humour, this is a pretty bleak story. From the get go we know that Laura's fate is a foregone conclusion and that she will die. Things also get darker for a while when it seems one of the more lighthearted characters has met a violent end, but she's later revealed to be fine, just in a hypnotic trance.

The biggest problem with Scared to Death is how every 5 minutes or less we're lurched back to the framing story, with the same "OooOOOOoooOOooooo" noise beginning and ending the scenes, with the inert corpse of Laura only ever saying 1 sentence. We'll cut away from the action like 'oooOOOOooo'-"My husband and I had an argument that night"-'oooOOOOooo'. It gets unintentionally hilarious very quickly, and happens so much you could be forgiven for thinking this is like a proto Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.

While some shots are framed quite well this movie is filmed like a stage play, with prolonged scenes made up of characters talking in one room, with minimal (though not motionless) action from the camera.

The characters are an unexplored and insufferable lot. The silly comic relief ex-cop seems to be the main protagonist, if the story even had one, along with the maid Lilybeth, but then the journalist Terry and his 'squeeze' Cordelia come onto the scene and take the reins. Shortly after, Lilybeth exits the picture in a surprising manner! I wasn't expecting  comic relief character, but she thankfully ends up returning. A relief too as she was my favourite character, though she doesn't get much to do in the final act. Cordelia is a bit of a hapless dope, while Terry is a misogynistic prick.

Weirdly named Doctor Van Ee is a total creep, but his motivations and plans are far too unexplored. The same is aaalmost true of Bela's character, but he at least gets resolution. He also has some good lines, ranging from the interesting ("Who can ever be sure what's behind a mask"), to the creepy )"She would look so beautiful lying here" he says, comparing the woman in question to the corpse lying on a table. Yikes! Makes you wanna huddle in fear behind a couch!

There's more amusing dialogue found in Scared to Death. From calling women dishes, to the 'golden' exchange of "Sweetheart, have you ever heard the old saying about little girls? Little girls should be seen and not heard, now go on, powder your nose.", and "I want the facts and I want them now, let's cut out the mulberry bush routine".

George Zucco is pretty good as the amoral and mysterious doctor, though vanishes quite frequently in the second half   Despite his equally intermittent screentime, Bela Lugosi is an off-putting presence, who you're never sure of. Does he mean well, or is he a more sinister figure? Angelo Rossito is severely underused. Most of the time he's just randomly standing around, or scurrying away from people, and that's when he even appears at all. Douglas Fowley, Nat Pendleton, and Joyce Compton are varying degrees of annoying and tolerable, while Gladys Blake is more bearable.

Scared to Death has certainly got some elements of genuine interest to recommend, be they intentional or not, but I don't really recommend it. Even the presence of Bela Lugosi isn't able to help elevate it. If you must watch it though I do recommend checking it out earlier than he rest of his filmography. Then again, I don't think anyone would be keen to watch his filmography in linear order, otherwise they'd end on the movies of Ed Wood!...

Murder by Television (1935)

Television existed in 1935? Bloody hell, that is surely the greatest mystery of all in this film! I thought it didn't come about till the 50s!

Inventor James Houghland has created a revolutionary new broadcast method, and various interested parties (both legitimate and criminal) are keen to acquire it, but the man refuses all offers. During a public demonstration of his device's capabilities, Houghland is murdered in an unexplained way, and the police try to figure out how this baffling murder was committed...

Murder by Television is a pretty early B-picture starring Bela Lugosi. It's not as late or as low quality as his Monogram offerings, but still isn't on the level of gems like Dracula, or The Black Cat. It's more of a mystery than it is a horror, but it's still a Lugosi feature, and with a title like that how could I not cover it for October??

The plot to Murder by Television must've been quite interesting back in the day. It's still neat now, but to people new to the concept of TV it would've been more eye-opening.

Unfortunately this is a pretty leaden affair for a lot of the runtime. There's not much investigation, and we mainly just see characters sitting around.

Things gets a little bit more interesting in the final act, but moreso because of soap opera style shenanigans more than good writing, and these comes to late to redeem the film much in any case. The reveal of how the murder was committed though is quite neat, even if it possibly doesn't make much sense, and isn't possible for the audience to work out for themselves. If nothing else, I'm glad the movie does live up to its title and ultimately present a murder-mystery involving the new technology of television, rather than just have the victim be stabbed or shot like any other whodunnit.

Bela Lugosi gets to play the hero for a change in Murder by Television, though it takes a while. He plays a dual role, though you wouldn't know it to look at him. He doesn't really play either character differently, and the first is a bit of a dull character in that he's just a random business associate.

The direction in Murder by Television is pretty static, but we get some well shot moments. One interesting bit was a flashback to an earlier scene but from a different point of view. It was really neat seeing such a thing from a movie of this older period!

The rest of the acting is simply ok. Actor Allen Jung gets the pleasant distinction of being an actual Chinese actor in a Chinese role! How nice for him! Just a shame his character is made to speak in a "Me no understand what happen" fashion, but at least the movie establishes that his reason for frequently spouting ancient Chinese proverbs is because he's a Charlie Chan fan ("He has a mania for courting confusion/quoting Confucius", one woman says about their superstitious movie buff manservant). He gets paired with genre role stalwart Hattie McDaniel. Their roles are both stereotypical, but they look like they were at least having fun on this murder-mystery movie set, and got to hang out with Bela Lugosi/getting to hang out with Bela Lugosi! Ah Ling and Isabella make for a fun duo, even if their acting can be a bit shaky (ok, a lot shaky).

Murder by Television isn't terrible, but I don't really recommend it unless you're a completionist, or really interested in possibly apocryphal portrayals of early televisual technology...

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

In the British-American parts of Czechoslovakia, Count Borotyn is murdered, with the cause of death being two mysterious puncture wounds on the neck that drained the body of all its blood.Some authorities believe it to be the work of a vampire, but others aren't convinced, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. A year later, however, the count's friends and family are visited by mysterious beings from beyond the grave...

Mark of the Vampire is a very creaky movie, not in visuals or atmosphere, but in story. It starts off spookily enough. There are a few too many characters to keep track of, and while some of them disappear, leaving us with a more manageable cast, those first minutes are still a bit of a jumble. The vampires are visually great, and their scenes are very well filmed and produced, although they come a little too infrequently, and the vampires don't really do much of anything. Then comes the twist...

This film is pretty notorious for its ending, which has sparked many differing opinions, not only from people nowadays, but apparently even in the cast (Bela Lugosi is said to have called it absurd, and I can't help but agree with him!). Ordinarily I wouldn't spoil the reveal, but it's so mishandled that I feel I should. The big twist of the climax is that the vampires are really actors hired by the police. Irena and the police have known from the start, and this was all their plan to force a confession of of the real murderer.

The first problem I have with this twist is it asks a lot of the audience. This 'simple' plan involves hiring a troupe of actors to pretend to be vampires, up to and including rigging them to fly, as well as find an exact double of the dead man who's also an actor and down for this dangerous plot, and culminating in hypnotising the suspect into thinking its 1 year ago and re-enacting hthe murder. That's a lot of ifs and maybes!

Second is the detrimental effect this has on the film's mystery, namely the complete lack of one. The whole movie we're not even aware this is a whodunnit, so it's not very fair in that regard, and it also feels a bit lazy as once we find out what's going on, the identity of the killer is never in question. While it is an interesting idea to reveal that someone thought to be good was a bad guy the whole time instead of the vampires, I feel that Mark of the Vampire mishandled it, partially due to the aforementioned overcomplication, and also because of its clumsy writing.

The third problem with the twist is how it deprives the vampires of any sense of agency. I wouldn't have minded if they turn out to be fake as long as they got a good climactic scene, perhaps eliciting a confession out of the guilty party themselves, but instead they just completely vanish until the final scene, where they're getting out of character after a job well done. The inciting event that gets the killer busted is the professor hypnotising him into reliving the night that Count Borotyn died, meaning the whole vampire rigmarole was pretty pointless. There was purportedly originally going to be a double twist, where the actors hired for the scheme ring up and apologise for not being able to make it...Which brings up the hilarious possibility that not only do vampires do exist, but they're totally down for helping the police!

So, to finish, I would've liked the twist had the film been better written, but as it is it opens up too many contrivances and issues. Still though, it's worth it for the fantastic final scene! The two young lovers barely get a word in edgewise when we're whisked away to the acting troupe, and Bela plays the movie out with his only dialogue in the film. "I was greater than any real vampire"/ An undeniable truth!

Other dialogue s pretty hilarious, from "Fancy, Ronnie, vampires in the 20th Century!"-"Ripping! They'll never believe that at the club", to "If you woke up dead in the morning, drained of all your blood, you'd be afraid of the dark", and from Lionel Atwill "We all thought our vampire scheme was so simple, so certain of success.".

The acting here is mixed. Some of it is decent, while other performances range from laughable in some places to just plain weird (such as Lionel Barrymore). Lioel Atwell is pretty standard as Inspector Neumann, not getting to play anyone dastardly. Elizabeth Allan is overly dramatic in some spots, but she really nails others, like the looks she gives her lookalike 'father' near the end. Caroll Borland is a somewhat ethereal presence as Luna, the female vampire and looks perfect in the role, but is underused. Bela Lugosi doesn't get much to do either, but skillful direction aids his spooky performance, and he pulls it off all without any dialogue, save for his amusing final scene.

The effects and location work in Mark of the Vampire are mostly very good! The sets are wonderful and look like a perfect snapshot of classical horror, with the Gothic castles, cobwebs, old pianos, and menacing descending stairways. There's also quite an animal menagerie, some real, others fake. The bats on strings are pretty amusing, while the fake spiders are adorable.

Mark of the Vampire is a flawed movie by far, but it's got enough to recommend it, in a serious way, a and a more unintentionally comedic one....

The Man with Nine Lives (1940)

Dr. Tim Mason and his nurse/ladyfriend Judith have been testing the viability of 'frozen therapy'-The science of freezing the human body in order to kill malignant cells, but in such a manner as to keep the patient alive. Mason is doing well, but has hit a couple of roadblocks, and while he's pretty confident about eventually overcoming them in time, he feels a bit hamstrung by the press immediately rattling on about how he's discovered an instant cure for cancer. Mason decides to find the scientist who originally devised the theories he's utilised, but that won't be easy since Dr. Leon Kravaal disappeared 10 years previously. Despite warnings from the locals, he and Judith go to the doctor's secluded island home, where Kravaal and four other men all vanished one day. Through a bit of luck and hard work, the duo soon find the house's secret lab, where Kravaal lies frozen, and they set about reviving him...

The somewhat misleadingly titled The Man with Nine Lives is quite an enjoyable Boris Karloff flick! I hesitate to call it horror since the majority of the movie is pretty lowkey, but there's an eerie air throughout, in part due to the location, but also the sense of impending dread as the two heroes go deeper into the abandoned house and what lies beneath its confines. When they come across a skeleton, you think "Noo, run away you fools!", and doubly so when they revive the mysteriously frozen man. However, from then on things are quite calm!

It's at this point when a flashback takes hold of the movie for a little while, and Karloff, who had been wholly absent from the first 20 minutes of the film, takes centre stage. This section is interesting in that Karloff's character is not only not villainous at all to start out with, but his studies don't even jeopardise anyone's life, or involve any unknowable black arts! Given his track record in movies like this, you know everything's gonna go wrong for the poor fellow anyway, but even that's a bit of a surprise. For a change, the doubting authorities are actually willing to give him the benefit of the doubt! The gist of their thought-process is "If you won't tell us if your patient is really alive or not, you're under arrest, and will stay here. What's that? Your patient will die if you're stuck here? Well then you'd better take us to him, then we'll believe you.". They're still massive dicks, and despite giving the good doctor every chance imaginable, they still ultimately side against him, but they're still much fairer than the authorities in other Karloff films such as this, who always declared him a madman without so much as a second opinion.

Unfortunately it's at around the 50 minute mark that the story takes a downturn. Because Karloff's character here is legitimately not the bad guy in any capacity, that saps any potential conflict from the story, so the writers must have thought. There are ways around this perhaps, and if you gave me a minute I could think of a few, but they probably figured that Karloff being menacing was the big draw and that they'd better deliver, especially with the evil beard they gave him. Because of this, a story that had been naturally building up to a more peaceable conclusion ends up being thrust headfirst into mad scientist seeking revenge territory in the last act, in a really sudden and frustrating way. The plot that follows certainly isn't bad, but I was still exasperated by the whole thing. The ending coda, meanwhile, is super cheesy, but at least positive and affirming, showing that in the world of this movie at least, great strides have been made for their medical care.

The setting of The Man with Nine Lives adds a lot to the proceeding. Eerie and creative, the cramped laboratory adjacent to an underground glacier is an interesting place, and it's a good thing too considering it's where just about the entire movie is set. The pacing is very good, and even though the movie slowed down for me after Karloff's sudden villainy due to my frustration, things are never boring or slow.

Despite disappearing for a stretch in the middle, Dr. Mason and Judith are decent protagonists. Dr. Kravaal is a very sympathetic character, and you really feel awful for what happens to him as the movie progresses. The remaining cast (the four authorities frozen with the doctor) are ok, and get across their characters' unyielding stubbornness well. The nephew of Dr. Kravaal's patient is an absolute scumbag. He's the loudest voice of dissent against Kravaal's studies, having sicced the police on him in the first place under the misguided suspicion of foul play, and even after being frozen and revived himself, he's still convinced that his uncle was murdered. He turns out to really only care about the money he stands to inherit anyway, and is actively repulsed by Kravaal's noble pursuits. Thankfully he meets a suitably sticky end before too long.

The science of the film is presumably pretty bunkum, but comes across well, with the worst of it being the intro. That however could be explained as exposition telling us the audience that in the world of this movie, such science has been found to be viable, sort of like if a movie set in our near future has a text card telling us about advances in cybernetics aiding people to blend fruit with their bare hands.

Despite what I felt to be its shortcomings, The Man with Nine Lives is a wonderfully spooky watch, with lots to enjoy...

The Devil Commands (1941)

College professor Julian Blair is conducting experiments on how to read the human mind and transmit thoughts, as one would radio waves, and is a success, even if only in a primitive manner this early in his research. Tragedy strikes, however, when his loving wife is killed in a car accident. After a chance incident in his lab where the thought patterns of his dead wife are recorded despite her death, Blair becomes convinced that his discovery can allow him to communicate with the other side. While not skeptical, his colleagues feel this is a bridge too far, and refuse to help Blair. Only his assistant Karl is of any help, offering to take his employer to a medium-Mrs. Walters. The woman turns out to be a fraud, but Blair realises that there was one unexplained incident at the seance that wasn't her doing. Finding her to be a gifted individual with a perfect affinity for electromagnetic whatsitgummy, Blair hires Walters to help him with his experiments. She seems to be taking her own cold interest in his work though...

The Devil Commands is an interesting film in that it's very nearly Lovecraftian (bearing a resemblance to parts of Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan), but public unfamiliarity with those stories presumably led the writers to take this more unique story and attach a more simple "The devil did it" approach to its marketing, which can be seen in the poster, and the title, even if not in the movie itself.

The story starts off quite positively! Dr. Blair's experiment is a resounding success, convincing even his most skeptical peers, then his wife comes over to take him to the train station for their daughter's arrival, to celebrate her 20th birthday. They get the wonderful cake from the ever-friendly baker, aaand it's about here the inevitable penny drops.

The conniving Mrs. Walters subtly takes control of the Doctor and organising a 'sea change' to a new town, perhaps recognising the money his discovery could net her in the future, and she's decidedly the one with less scruples, who goes as far as convincing the doc to steal bodies, and cover up a death in his laboratory.

The biggest hurdle The Devil Commands faces is that it takes a little too long to get to the really interesting stuff, and by that point the movie's almost over. The time jump of two years also 'helps' in making the story's elements feel too unexplored for my liking. A lot of the story is told to us rather than shown, by the dull narration, and we never really get a concrete reason for why the doctor's experiments are so horrifying. They're not good due to the whole body snatching an' all, but aside from that, you never get the sense of an evil power or presence behind anything, certainly not the devil. You get the impression that the experiments would turn out fine if Blair was left undisturbed (and invested in better laboratory straps). I feel exemplifying this lack of further thought in the script is how despite the two year advance, a full laboratory setup, with half a dozen corpses sitting around the table looking like a macabre deep-sea diving conference, the results of Blair's tests are still exactly the same, trying to continue the same jutting line on a piece of paper.

Dr. Blair is a good lead, going through a definite change over the course of the movie. As for the reactions the scientific world has towards his discovery, they do somewhat believe his claims, but their objections are more based on the worry that by breaching the veil between the living and the dead, this will unleash some unknown horror onto mankind. Not quite sure how they reached that conclusion, but I will agree that tinkering with the afterlife perhaps isn't the best of ideas. On that note, it's amusing that Karloff has played both villains and victims in this 'struggle', from doctors trying to resurrect the dead, to those brought back from beyond the grave by said madmen.

The character of Miss Walters is interesting, as she's clearly up to no good, perhaps with an ulterior motive to keep the Doctor's research going!...Then she abruptly exits the story. It turns out cash really is her only motive! Following that we get Doctor Blair becoming the defacto villain by trying to use his daughter for the experiment, which makes sense given how its explained to us, but it's not where the film was going. Walters should've had a bigger role in the climax, with her sinister machinations coming to a head, but instead it feels like the actress has a pressing engagement and had to leave.

Carl is a more fleshed out 'disfigured' lab assistant than most Igor types. He's mentally challenged, but is portrayed with more personality and good nature...until he gets zapped on the noggin' rather severely and becomes reduced to a much more one-note character.

Despite her constant and rather clunky and intrusive narration, Dr. Blair's daughter Anne is an unproactive lead, who even gets kidnapped and restrained offscreen, she's so useless. For all her flowery droning, she actually has rather little real dialogue, and most of her character and feelings are merely relayed to us rather than letting us see them for ourselves.

The townspeople are a bunch of assholes. The sheriff is the kind of guy who draws a gun on a handicapped manservant simply for the crime of entering a room in his own house (the movie doesn't seem to realise this is an overreaction), while the villagers grow to hate Dr. Blair despite knowing literally nothing about him. Just because he's isolated and doesn't socialise he's suddenly the devil in their eyes. Yeah, as annoying as they are I guess I can't fault the movie for realism! Bloody townies... The lynch mob at the end felt a bit unnecessary though, feeling like something out of Frankenstein, and they contribute nothing to events. Admittedly though, this particular lynch mob is entirely accurate in their suspicions regarding Dr. Blair conducting arcane rituals with the dead, even though they really shouldn't be based on what they have to go on.

Overall I quite like the slightly against type crafting of the main characters. You have the mad scientist who's careful and considerate (well, less of the former as it goes on), a medium who admits she's phony, and is only in this business for the money, and a mentally handicapped lab assistant who's not your typical deranged stereotype.

Karloff's performance is really good, going from an assured scientist with a gentle sense of humour, to a disheveled shell of a man resigned to his experiments no matter how far they go. As for Anne Revere, I'm not sure if she's really good at playing an emotionally detached villain, or just really wooden. It's genuinely hard to tell, as in some scenes she has a somewhat off-putting air to her, but in others she's pretty lousy. The rest of the acting ranges from ok to mediocre.

The set design by Lionel Banks is really good! The metal outfits worn by those involved in Dr. Blair's experiments look weird, and a little bulbous, but otherwise make for a pretty interesting sight.

The Devil Commands ultimately doesn't really go anywhere, but it's still worth a watch, isn't long at only 64 minutes, and has a fine performance from its auspicious lead...

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Return of the Ape Man (1944)

Professors Dexter and Gilmore are two scientists performing studies on suspended animation. After a routine experiment of freezing the homeless for 4 months goes swimmingly, they ponder on how they could test the theory's viability on even longer frozen patients, without having to wait an incredibly long amount of time. In order to find a prehistoric man, frozen in ice, the duo head to the Arctic. 10 months later, Gilmore is getting cold feet (figuratively and literally), wishing to go back home to his wife (assuming she hasn't divorced him already!). No more than 5 seconds after uttering his doubts  the team find exactly what they're looking for and return back home with their find. Upon successfully reviving the Neolithic man, Dexter makes the decision to perform a radical experiment on the subject, for which he requires a section of somebody's brain. When Dexter settles on that of young suitor Steve, Gilmore realises his friend is a madman, and seeks to protect his family, but is taken by Dexter in the process and has his brain stolen to bring new intelligence to the caveman...

Despite being made by the same team, from the same company, with the same lead actor, this is not a sequel to 1943's The Ape Man. Not only is there not a return, there are also no ape men present! That problem aside, Return of the Ape Man starts off well,    and eventually the plot devolves into a simple 'prehistoric man steals girl and carries her away, before getting killed by the police', which we've seen a gajillion times before (shockingly enough). The weirdest thing about Return of the Ape Man is how Lugosi's character dies 10 minutes before the end of this 60 minute movie, despite being the main villain.

Professors Dexter and Gilmore are pretty rubbish scientists. When they unfreeze the caveman they have no restraints whatsoever, nor any way of proving their find, like cameras or other records, and their method of incapacitating the subject once he turns violent involves not a special syringe, but bonking the guy on the head with a plank of wood. Then Professor Dexter decides to immediately conduct an experiment on the miracle find of the millennium, all before showing him to anyone in the scientific community. Look, dude, I know you're a mad scientist and all, but you're not meant to tempt fate quite that much!

You're probably wondering what said experiment entails. Oh, nothing much. He's just going to perform an experimental brain transfer of a modern man's brain to the neanderthal body. Ok, nevermind that this will probably kill your miraculous find, and would basically involve killing someone else's body (the illegality of which is sure to have the police coming down on your now illegal presentation to the public), not to mention leaving your discovery with the gnarliest surgical scar imaginable. So much for an untouched specimen from prehistoric times! Now when Decter first mentions this plan, I was skeptical on the grounds that 'by removing the consciousness of the original caveman with such a transplant, you're removing half of what makes him interesting! He probably can talk, or learn to talk, you dim bulbs just have to teach him first! But no, by all means transplant the brain of some random guy named Johnny into this ancient body. That wouldn't be boring at all'. However, the movie does explain this problem away with a bit of scientific babble.

There are a few other lacking or weird scenes. For a start, the caveman is somehow immune to bullets, and recovers from extensive brain surgery in what must only be a matter of minutes (leaving no trace of a cranial operation despite his big mane of hair). There's a bit of a missed opportunity that nothing is made of the caveman being Hilda's husband after the operation, as he forgets his prior lucidity and kills her pretty abruptly. I guess that depends on what the viewer's expecting. Myself, I was hoping there'd be a 'touching' reunion where she realises her husband's brain now dwells within a 400,000 year old neanderthal. Overall, the caveman doesn't get a lot to do besides run around and kill a couple of people. Nothing complex.

There's a hilarious police inspection that's on par with Manos, where they literally only search one room in Dexter's house for 5 seconds before calling an end to their search, declaring that they're clearly barking up the wrong tree. Steve even has to suggest they look in the doctor's laboratory too, to which they respond with 'Yeah, we might as well as long as we're here'. Might as well?! It's literally the whole reason you're here in the first place, you dolts!

The climax is fiery and spectacular, filmed very well! The best scene in the movie is one where a caveman is playing Moonlight Sonata, if you can believe it. It's quite effective, in a legitimately serious way despite the inherent silliness.

Bela Lugosi is pretty good as a typical mad scientist, although his early death scene kinda precludes him from getting a big final moment. John Carradine gets to play a much more involved and dignified role than he did in Voodoo Man, the part of an equal in the lab rather than a mere assistant getting test tubes. He physically vanishes from the film over 20 minutes before the end though, and only his voice can be heard, albeit pretty fleetingly.

Unlike other male protagonists of these Monogram pictures, I actually quite liked Steve. He's nice, intelligent, and not at all sexist! A shame then that he appears markedly little when compared with Lugosi and Carradine. His girlfriend and Gilmore's niece Anne meanwhile is nice, even if she can't pronounce fiancee correctly.

Now we come to the film's main draw. The titular ape man, played at least partly by veteran actor George Zucco, if we believe the credits. Given the title, I assumed this would be another use of those amusing stock gorilla costumes you'd see in all these flicks, from The Savage Girl, to Abbott and Costello's Africa Screams, or indeed this film's 'predecessor', and many others. The thought of George Zucco being in such a role is patently hilarious! However, this isn't an ape costume, but an actor slathered in make-up. For what it's trying to achieve, it looks quite good, but it's also this that makes it plainly visible Frank Moran was the actor in the role. There are a few reasons floating around as to why Zucco didn't end up in the finished product, despite being attached late enough in the game for there to be set photos of him, and a listing in the credits. They range from him having fallen ill, to the producers deeming him too old (a not unreasonable concern given the wild stunts we see the caveman pulling off), and Zucco himself simply refusing the part, which I can imagine. He doesn't strike me as the kind of actor who'd appreciate being stuck in a phony Halloween costume and told to wave his arms about and go 'Grrrrr!'.

As for Moran, he does quite a good job! It's a purely physical role, but he shows off his athletic abilities very well, and even in the shots where it's clear he's carrying a dummy, he's still doing impressive acrobatic while slinging a lifesize dummy over his shoulders!

Return of the Ape Man is no The Ape Man, which is a statement that could be taken in many different directions, but I happen to mean it in the negative. This isn't all bad, and it certainly looks decent, but it's a step down...