Sunday, October 31, 2021

Halloween 2021

Happy Halloween, for yet another year! I hope every has had/will have a great time I had a busy month on and off my blog, and was looking forward to the day itself. I had a fun spooky marathon, with a few sugary snacks and drinks (and some healthy vegetables to balance things out), and some pizza for dinner. I carved a pumpkin, and made a papier-mache Voodoo mask.

In the afternoon I went out trick or treating, except I was giving out candy, not receiving it. This mostly went off without a hitch,though it was only when I began that I suddenly realised it might look like I'm a greedy boy, hoarding mass amounts of lollies! This problem was quickly solved when the first people I visited thanked me and promptly emptied my first bowl! I was shocked, but too polite to say anything, and wasn't sure how things would continue. But then the next couple of places didn't need anything! Whaddya know, like a cosmic balancing act. A few other places did need some extra supplies, on the cusp of running out, so I was able to contribute.

All in all it was a bit of a busier Halloween than usual, but still entertaining and enjoyable, and not too bloody hot...

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Jungle Woman Trilogy (1943-1945)

Captive Wild Woman

I was recently thinking on how annoying it is that there's a 1930s/40s horror flick called The Ape, and one called The Ape Man, but no The Ape Woman to round out the set! Grrrrr. However, I growled too soon, because there's actually an Ape Woman trilogy! None of the entries are actually called that, but still. I call this a success...

Animal trainer Fred Mason has returned from a trip to Africa, bringing a collection of animals for a circus. Among his prizes is an impressive gorilla named Cheela. Meanwhile, his fiancee Beth takes her ill sister to a gland specialist, Dr. Sigmund Walters, not realising the man has sinister plans. When he sees Cheela, he's amazed at this perfect specimen, and kidnaps the gorilla in order to experiment on, turning her into a human woman dubbed Paula. What mad idea will cross his mind next? And just what will the animalistic Cheela do now that she has the appearance of a human?..

Captive Wild Woman is a fairly decent movie, though with issues. A circus is a potentially interesting setting for a horror film, but Captive Wild Woman doesn't quite pull it off, mainly because we spend so much time at the circus without any spooky or horrific goings-on happening. Look, there's setting up story, and then there's wasting time! 35 minutes is a bit much for an hour long film.

Fred, ostensibly the lead, is an alright guy, though I question his intelligence. Returning from a safari, he was gone for two years, a fact everyone around him seems remarkably blase about! Between this and the stunts he pulls with his big cats, he's basically a moron with a death wish. He also gets some amusingly cringey lines, like "Oh, a cage full of animals with a girl mixed up in it, it doesn't make sense" (admittedly makes a little more sense in context), or after a lion and tiger taming show, he says to Beth, "Honey, I wonder if you'll be that easy to train after we're married.".

Beth fares well. Her jumping to conclusions is unnatural, even if she happens to be spot on. She's more involved in the climax than Greg is, but she makes no effort to fight back when locked in a lab, even though the guy's a rake, and is unarmed. Just punch him! Thankfully she does even the odds, in an unexpected way.

Paula meanwhile is enigmatic and filled with attraction towards Fred. This means instant jealousy when she sees him with another woman. Possessing an unstable body, she will revert back to an ape without further experimentation, which you can imagine will play havoc on her love life.

The villain is an enjoyable mad scientist. Affable, yet sinister, and perfectly willing to sacrifice his staff for an experiment. His specialty is glandular research, which is how he manages to transform an ape into a human. Perfectly reasonable science, really. I can't imagine why it's not more popular!

The climax is fairly entertaining, although only the basics are resolved. What bothers me most about the ending is the music in the final moments, which is so quick and jovial that it gives you no breathing space after the brief conclusion, and kinda kills the mood. Some slower music would've been preferred.

The gorilla costume really clashes with the real animals used in the rest of the film. It doesn't look too cheap, but it's obviously not really an ape. Still though, you've gotta like this period in Hollywood when ape costumes were not only acceptable, but mandatory! The man-ape make-up is very good,

As for the real animals, there are a few moments of wild action. I'm not sure how they accomplished it, but I assume it must've been under safe conditions, hence the animals bloodlessly scrapping for several minutes. I think they were actually just playing around, and the ferocious snarls and roars were dubbed in to make their playtime seem like a fierce battle. Either way this probably isn't the film to watch if you dislike animals in circuses, and it won't do anything to endear the concept to you.

The acting is decent overall. John Carradine is great as the resident mad scientist, while Acquanetta has a great look to her, with a piercing stare, but doesn't get much to do besides that, and isn't even present in the conclusion! She practically vanishes from the movie several minutes before the end, as her character reverts back to being an ape for the climax.

Milburn Stone and Evelyn Ankers are fine leads. I was hoping the character of Dorothy would get more to do, and was a bit dismayed when she vanished for nearly the entire film...and then she opened her mouth, and suddenly I didn't mind so much.

Ahh, the 1940s were such a healthy time! Overall, besides general period habits like smoking up a chimney, or casual chauvinism, the film isn't all that dated, and never falls into any racial traps.

Captive Wild Woman has a few flaws, but overall it's a pretty decent time, and provides a few fun moments and thrills...

Jungle Woman

A scientist stands accused of a murder, and together with his friends and family must defend himself from the charges. He tells a tale of a resurrected ape woman named Paula, and how her animalistic jealousy threatened the lives of everyone between her and her man...

Jungle Woman is an interesting movie. For the first 15 minutes it's the cheapest sequel imaginable! It reuses wholesale stock footage from the first movie, showing a whole 3 minute scene when only 20 seconds would have sufficed. This is especially galling in a movie that's only an hour long! This left me a little worried as to the quality of the movie to come. This is where things get more positive though.

This is is a very cheap movie, as evidenced by its reused footage, and the realisation I had that the only time we'd seen Paula as an ape woman was through this old footage! Add to this the fact that the entire setting is the clinic from the last, then you have a recipe for disaster. While the lack of other locations harms the movie, the setting makes sense, and is in a way utilised better than in the last film.

Its low budget aside however, Jungle Woman looks very good! The director clearly put attention and care into it, and got a few good shots here and there. It also resolves a couple of loose ends from the first movie too, such as Fred never learning that Paula and Cheela the ape were one and the same.

The characters are alright. The scientist this time round is benevolent, and tries his best. Bob is a good guy, and despite buying into Paula's lies, he's pretty blameless for it, since he doesn't realise the truth yet. Love interest Joan is a nice girl. And Paula, after the events of the last movie has still not learned her lesson, She's still falling in love with taken men, and getting wildly jealous. It is interesting seeing how manipulative she can get!

The acting is all pretty standard here. The film makes the interesting choice of having Paula speak. I say interesting, but not good. You see, Aquanetta is a visually stunning actress. Ethereally beautiful, and great with non-verbal skills, but her vocal talents are...shall we say, robotic?

Overall, there's not really any reason Jungle Woman needed to exist, and it does nothing new, but I'm glad it exists. It may not do anything new, but it does do a few things better, so that's good at least. And despite its flaws, it's never a bad movie...

The Jungle Captive

The body of ape woman Paula is stolen from a morgue by a hulking brute, who brings the body to a seemingly kind scientists, with sinister experiments to test. Two young people get embroiled in the events, and must fight to ensure the doctor's insane plans don't reach fruition...

I went into Jungle Captive, the final entry in the Paula trilogy, not expecting much. The first sequel was already stretching things, but managed to be decent. Another one though? That's dangerous thinking when the last one only had 45 minutes of new material!

This is a film that simultaneously feels like its own thing, yet hinges on being a sequel. Because of this it really does fail at both. It's unable to exist as its own story, yet never delivers a satisfying one for Cheela. If you watch it on its own it's a fairly passable movie, and kills an hour quickly enough, but that's it.

The absolute worst thing it does is mistreat past characters. When the villains discuss Dr. Fletcher, I just assumed they meant John Carradine from the first movie. But nope, they meant the guy from Jungle Woman! And they killed him offscreen. Talk about disrespectful! I like to think he knew what was happening after Paula's body was stolen, and faked his death to trick the villains out into the open. That'd actually be pretty neat, if all the protagonists of the last movie had their own big plot we never see! We are all the heroes of our own story after all. Just because Ann and Don are the leads here, doesn't mean the others are frozen stiff.

The two heroes are fairly average, and certainly likeable. The same goes for the resident snarky police chief. The most distinctive character is the villainous henchman, named Moloch. Though it took me halfway through the movie before I realised they weren't saying Mullock. Kinda less intimidating when you think it's a regular name like that, isn't it! He's your typical hulking brute, but he's surprisingly clever.

This is more of a Rondo Hatton vehicle, and a pretty good one too. It also never once points out his deformity, instead just treating him like he's a regular goon. Even the terrified heroes never mention anything odd about him.

Dr. Stendahl is a little different, in that unlike the mad doctor of the first film, he desperately wants to test his theories yet is unwilling to kill anyone to get it. That's quite interesting, and while corpse snatching is still bad, it lends enough moral ambiguity to the proceedings. Just a shame then that his assistant Moloch totally murdered someone to get the body! This is even acknowledged, and the doc's reaction is an amusing "Oh yes."

While not a comedy, Jungle Captive has a few funny moments. As one character says-"They say she had the strength of a gorilla" She is a gorilla, you moron! Later, the police are looking for a missing Ann, and he casually says it could just be amnesia. "Ann has been working awfully hard lately. I myself am to blame for that, it's very thoughtless of me honestly". I didn't know amnesia was so easy to get! Just a hectic day at the office and bam, you've lost all your memory!

Stendahl gets another good moment when he casually tells his captive "I need some more of your blood, Ann. Not much this time". And lastly is the fact that his evil lair is undone by a power bill. That's why you've gotta get off the grid if you're a power mad scientist!

Cheela/Paula really gets shafted in this film. She only comes back to life 25 minutes before the end, and since her new brain would mean Ann's death, that means you know she's never gonna get it. Therefore she's really only a hollow shell of her former self.

The climax begins when Don is captured after investigating the doctor's lair. He does manage to escape...only to get caught and tied up again immediately afterwards! Ann is out cold most of the time, while all Don can do is talk. Thankfully he tells Moloch enough to turn him on the doc, for all the good it does. The day is saved by Cheela, who wakes up and remembers she's a horror movie villain.

The acting is fine enough. Amelita Ward and Phil Brown are good leads. Otto Kruger is an amusing villain, friendly enough when in mixed company, but scheming in private. His acting is so casual I don't know whether to praise him for his comedic skills, or criticise him for not emoting properly. Either way it's fun. Rondo Hatton meanwhile provides some intimidation and menace, with a fine performance.

The first film I saw Jerome Cowan in was Find the Blackmailer, where he's a smart-alec private eye. Here he's a smart-alec policeman! Funny seeing him on the official side of the law this time, yet acting the same. And he's the boss, too! More bosses should be as funny as Inspector Harrigan. And lastly, as Cheela/Paula is Vicky Lane, replacing Aquanetta. She does ok, but she has none of the animalism or hypnotic looks that Aquanetta brought to the role, and she's sorely missed.

Jungle Captive has as many flaws as positives. Worth a watch if you're a fan of this stuff, but nothing great...

Son of Ingagi (1940)

Spencer Williams was what we call in Australia a top bloke. He started out in the theatre, soon became an actor, and moved on to directing. Despite being known for humourous roles, and despite having no more than two pennies to rub together, he still managed to produce mature content that's still appreciated today. He never let himself be ted down to any one genre, as he went from comedy, to drama, 'juke' musicals, and horror...

Eleanor and Robert Lindsay are a newly married couple, ready to settle down in their new home. They make the acquaintance of Dr. Jackson, who turns out to be a friend of the family. Despite having a spooky reputation among the neighbourhood, Eleanor is warm and inviting, knowing all the good she's done with her studies. What she doesn't know is that in Dr. Jackson's home contains a deadly man ape, that may soon cause havoc...

Son of Ingagi starts off pretty sweetly, showing a wedding between two cute newlyweds, all the while building up a suspicious character and situation. It's only at the half hour mark (also the halfway mark) where spooky stuff starts happening proper. This never feels like it's late, and the set-up is all good.

When I first went into this film, I was expecting a broad comedy, since a lot of African-American genre cinema of the time was deeply humorous (be they westerns, horrors, or crime, you could often expect to have a good laugh with the characters), and the lighthearted opening had me wondering, but for the most part Son of Ingagi is a pretty serious affair. Not too serious, of course. It strikes a good balance. The tense scenes are tense, and there's a good atmosphere built up.

Then there's the comedy. It mainly takes the form of funny dialogue, and succeeds, without ever spoiling the moment. One highlight is "Well his neck was broken, and two ribs caved in, back twisted. I was thinkin' maybe he committed suicide, until I found out both his arms were busted, then I couldn't figure it out!"

I can't really say I have many outright problems with this film, though there were a few little things that annoyed or confused me. First and foremost is a frustrating moment where Doctor Baker gloriously proclaims that she's finally found a formula that can singlehandedly cure all of mans ills!...Before it's immediately drunk by N'Gina, who goes crazy and destroys the lab, killing his mistress. Maybe she spoke too soon, and the fact that N'Gina went crazy at all means she buggered the formula, but it's still a nuisance to watch.

The confusing elements of the film are to do with Doctor Baker, and how she managed to smuggle a ton of gold and a giant man-ape all the way from Africa! On that note, the mentions of her gold seem to almost take Son of Ingagi into comic book territory, when we have scenes such as the doctor's greedy/unscrupulous brother going "Gimme your gold! I want your gold!".

Something I especially admire about Son of Ingagi is how progressive it is! First and foremost it's a race film, but we also have a great portrayal of not only a female doctor, but mad scientist too! The movie never makes anything of this, simply showing it as is, working wonderfully.

Daisy Bufford and Alfred Grant make for good leads. They're sweet, endearing, and you always support them. Multitasking Spencer Williams does a very good job here as the comic relief policeman. He gets some of the funniest scenes, and adds extra life to the proceedings. Laura Bowman is sinister at first as the suspicious Doctor, but soon shows a sensitive side, which fleshes her character out considerably. Then we see her more maternal facet with N'Gina, adding another layer of depth for the actress to work with, which she manages well. The movie loses some talent when her character dies. And lastly, Zack Williams does very well as N'Gina, who gets both sensitive and animalistic moments. I would've liked to see him in more roles like this, and become an African-American Karloff or Chaney.

The effects for the titular monster are pretty well realised. It's not the most expensive of make-up, but it never looks bad, and its design makes for a neat antagonist.

Spencer Williams would continue making movies, before eventually getting a lead role in Amos 'n Andy, becoming cemented as a cultural institution among both races, which I find to be a touching capstone to his storied career. And with Son of Ingagi, he shares a great milestone with all who worked on this film, one of the first black horrors. It may not be the greatest movie out there, but as far as beginnings go, you could do far worse...

The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935)

The Black Cat

Peter and Joan Alison are newlyweds going via train though Hungary, where they meet the mysterious Dr. Vitus Werdegast. A veteran of World War I, Vitus has only recently been released from a brutal prison camp, and is eager to find what's left of his family. They accompany him on a cab ride into the village, and after a near-lethal crash, the party are taken to the home of the sinister Hjalmar Poelzig. Vitus remembers the man very well, the one who betrayed their battalion to the enemy, and cost him his freedom. The two rivals begin a game of death, where the fate of the newlyweds is at stake, and the loser will face untold torture...

Directed by industry great Edward G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is a fairly loose adaption (i.e. it has literally nothing to do with Poe, besides a cat that probably isn't even black). Despite this annoyance, it manages to live up to the author's spirit in tone and content. Made during the pre-code era, this is regarded as one of the most extreme horror films of the era, with themes of insanity, satanism, torture, incest (sort-of), and necrophilia (some say implied, though I didn't pick up on that).

The story is an engaging one. With a short runtime of just over an hour, we are introduced to the cast in quick succession, and all the dominoes fall into place nice and quickly. The young couple soon realise things at this house are off, and this fear grows when their repeated attempts to eave are conveniently thwarted, either by a malfunctioning car, a dead phone line, and other 'misfortunes'.

The best parts of the movie involve Vitus and Poelzig, whose mutual hatred is barely concealed. Vitus makes a few attempts on his enemy's life, all unsuccessful, leading him to plan a long game, and hope the cunning villain doesn't see it coming.

There are a few twists and turns here, not all of which felt necessary. Vitus knows his wife is long dead, but wants to find his daughter. Poelzig says she died too, but we soon see she's not only alive and well, but married to the creep! This could've worked well for the story, but I felt it was a bit pointless. She seems remarkably well-adjusted for someone romanced and married by her step-father, and her end feels random and unsatisfying. I wonder what it would've been like if Joan was actually Vitus's long lost daughter. It would've been cheesy and contrived, yes, but at least it'd be better than the nothing we get instead.

The climax is a great one, with a few contrivances, but it makes up for this in pure enjoyment. We get a great final battle with the two rivals, leading to a chilling final encounter. It's great stuff!

Where the ending disappointed me most was the role of the young couple. Joan is to be sacrificed to the cult, until an unexplained trick helps free her. But her husband is nowhere in sight! He was imprisoned earlier, and is busy taking his sweet time getting free, while the rest of the movie happens without him.

When he does finally show up he only makes things worse. When Joan needs to get free, Werdegast says "Let me help you", very nobly interrupting his torture of Poelzig to aid this lady in distress, and Peter busts in and immediately shoots the poor doctor in cold blood! Murder! If Peter had've come across Werdegast right in the act of flaying Poelzig and shot him then and there out of shock, that would be more understandable, even if he totally owes the man a bouquet at his funeral. But the hero comes across badly here, especially considering he'd done literally nothing else during the climax, leaving Werdegast to do everything.

Bela Lugosi plays the hero for a change here, and does a great job. He's just unhinged enough, but not so much that you can't accept him as the good guy. But since the 1930s era was probably contractually obligated to star someone handsome, David Manners is technically the lead. But we know who the real stars are! Boris Karloff, meanwhile, is at his best. There's a real sinister edge to his performance, and he plays the role with a calm malevolence, his eyes expressing pure hatred. He's also made-up in a very interesting way, looking the opposite of Frankenstein.

When it comes to effects, The Black Cat is pretty light. The violence is all offscreen, so squeamish people might not be too traumatised. But then again, the suggestion of violence can often hold a greater impact than just seeing it right there.

The set design here is standout. Poelzig's house has strange architecture, and it's a creative location for such a movie. Everything down to the windows, and the altars, is designed with an eye for detail. The direction is equally great, with clever uses of shadows and silhouettes, often heightening the tension, and introducing characters strikingly.

The music here is predominately made up of classical pieces, and thankfully they mesh quite well, never feeling like a cheap excuse to not score a real soundtrack (even though it probably was).

The Black Cat is one of the 1930s' most intense horror films, and well worth a watch! If anyone tries to tell you that old horror movies can't hold a candle to newer stuff, just show 'em this and watch them shiver...

The Raven

Dr. Richard Vollin is a brilliant but eccentric surgeon. Though retired from practice, he is convinced to perform a delicate operation to save the life of young Jean Thatcher, daughter of a noted judge. He becomes infatuated with the girl, and conspires to win her for himself. When her father objects, Vollin intends on using his morbid fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, and a desperate convict, to sweep away all his obstacles...

The Raven is another delightfully spooky turn from horror's greatest pair. Despite its title, this isn't an adaption of The Raven, but then again it never really attempts to be, instead telling an original story drawing inspiration from Poe's work in general. This creates an ooky atmosphere full of shadows and poetry, with a highlight being the ballet dance during a recital of the titular poem.

The story is set up well. Vollin is the first character introduced to us, and seems like a nice enough fellow, until obsession gets the better of him, and either twists his mind, or exposes it for what it really is. 

The escaped convict Bateman is also introduced relatively quickly, busting his way into Vollin's study, insisting at gunpoint that the doctor change his face. Vollin is unfazed by the surprise entrance. It's fantastic how he so effortlessly turns the tables, without Bateman or you realising it's happened until it's too late, and suddenly the man who was being forced into a criminal's demands is now the one giving instructions. 

Vollin does indeed change Bateman's face, but instead of hiding his identity, he cruelly disfigures the man, in order to force him to do his bidding, or else he won't reverse the process. One of the film's big scares is the reveal of Bateman's face after the operation. The music slowly builds up as he realises something terrible is the matter, and we gradually zoom out, 

While Vollin is undoubtedly the villain of the piece, the two do share a great game of wits, like when the man doctor is demonstrating one of his torture devices, and arrogantly lies down right where the shackles can spring up, and Bateman sends a sharp pendulum slowly descending, until an increasingly worried Vollin reminds him he's the only one who can restore the convict's old face. This works, but Bateman soon realises he probably should've let the pendulum just do its work, once he comes to the conclusion that Vollin is hardly a man of his word. This all culminates in a great last battle.

With the villains as the true stars of the film, the actual protagonists don't command our attention nearly as much, but they are decent. Jean and her fiancee Jerry are decent enough. Her father is a reasonable authority figure, who can see what's going on and tries his best to ward Vollin away, earning him a spot on a rack. The family also have a few friends, including [an older couple, and a slightly older couple]. They're primarily for comic relief, and do the job well. I'm glad they don't get killed, because they were fun. Most amusing is how the older couple manages to sleep through the entire events of the climax! Lucky bastards.

The last act is mixed. On one hand it's great, full of cool deathtraps and last-minute rescues. On the other hand it only makes up the last 10 minutes of the film! Granted it's only an hour long anyway, but still. The pacing is never off, but I do wish there was a longer climax, and more time spent on the torture devices (not to mention a juicy victim or two!). Though it is good that we don't get too much, and have the lustre worn off.

The overall tone of The Raven is a good one. It manages to be spooky and funny, in equal measure. There's a good balance, so while the movie always could've been more ghoulish, the atmosphere is never spoiled by the humour. The dialogue can get pretty amusing in places, like the blase "See here Vollin, things like this just can't be done". The 1930s was a time when you could give people a politely worded telling-off for putting others in deadly traps. A much more respectful time.

Onto the acting. Bela Lugosi delivers a standout performance here. He plays calm and well-adjusted, and maniacal, cackling like a true madman. He manages to outshine Boris Karloff, whose role is comparatively more mundane, though he still makes the most of it. He, brings a level of humanity and brutality to his role.

The rest of the cast is fine. Irene Ware is always a welcome treat, and Lester Matthews is satisfactory. Inez Courtney and Ian Wolfe are a hoot, and I enjoyed every scene they're in. Spencer Charters and Maidel Turner are fine too, as is Samuel S. Hinds.

The sets in The Raven are great. The house looks fantastic, and its spooky basement would be a treasure trove for enthusiasts of the macabre (raises my hand). The effects are good too. The make-up Boris gets on his face might not be as memorable or intricate as Frankenstein or the Mummy, but it still looks good, and satisfies.

The Raven is an enjoyable example of classic horror, and gives just enough to treat any fans of the genre...

These two icons of horror worked together many times over the years, always to great effect. Interestingly enough, both The Raven and The Black Cat would each receive two new versions over the years, the former starring Karloff once again, and the other...ahem, 'featuring' Bela. And both films are linked in that neither have the slightest connection with Edgar Allan Poe...