Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This Will Make Your Blood Curl!

Doctor X(1932)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster

That quote is from Michael Curtiz, the brilliant director famous for his hilariously broken english, describing his first horror film, Doctor X. Made in what I consider to be Hollywood's best year for screen horror, Doctor X is the first technicolor horror film ever made and one of the creepiest of the decade. It may not be overall as good as many of it's masterful contemporaries, but there is still much to like about this Pre-Code, old dark house chiller.

The film is significant also, for being set in contemporary New York City, though the look of the film and the locations utlized, clearly recall an earlier time. A series of "moon-killer" murders are spreading throughout the New York City waterfront and reporter, Lee Taylor(Lee Tracy) is trying to get a scoop. He discovers that an eminent scientist, Dr. Xavier(Lionel Atwill) is part of the investigation and concludes that the killer has used surgical instruments to slay his victims as well as cannibalize them! The police link the instruments used to the university where Xavier works and all the staff become suspects. They are a strange sort, particularly Dr. Wells(Preston Foster) who is introduced exclaiming that he is on the brink of discovering the secret of life, while gazing at a beating heart in a jar! A macabre scen follows where he removes a false hand, pretty strong stuff for 1932. There's some great stuff here, really including a great line when the police suspect the scarred Dr. Rowitz(Arthur Edmond Carewe) of the murders and Atwill replies, "He is the author of several volumes of poetry!" Fearing scandal, Xavier decides to conduct a 48 hour investigation himself to determine if any of the staff is the murderer. Tracy annoyingly attempts to intervene and follows them to a really spooky cliffside mansion that looks just terrific, whether it's a model or not! Tracy goes there by carriage on a moonlit night, complete with fog.

Joanne Xavier(Fay Wray) goes along to the mansion, her character's introduction includes her screaming for no reason at all at the sight of her father in the library! Xavier has a plan to re-enact the murders with actors and dummies and have the doctors watch with a blood pressure monitor to measure their levels of excitement to see who is the killer. Xavier has one of the coolest mad doctor labs of the 30s, complete with tons of electrical equipment straight out of Frankenstein and probably was. The colors enhance the mansion's atmospher considerably, and Curtiz's use of shadows and distorted angles and closeups make the proceedings very eerie. Xavier holds the experiment, Wells runs it, being a non-suspect due to his handicap  and something goes wrong. The lights go out, closeups of hands and faces and ultimately, a scream. Xavier believes it's Rowitz, but he turns out to be the victim. Still, not ready to turn this matter to the police, the scientists agree to conduct the experiment again the following evening. Meanwhile, Tracy is locked in a closet full of skeletons(!) and is found out and made a guest. The usual red herring and clutching hands business goes on, as the killer is found to have(in a rather grotesque touch) gone to partially feast on Rowitz's corpse! Tracy is on the make for Joanne and vows to protect her, spending a day at the beach with her and they fall in love, predictably. The experiment is held the next night, another full moon as the killer only strikes by the light of the moon and this time, Xavier decides to have all the doctors tied down this time, determined to catch the murderer.

What follows is what I consider to be the most frightening scene in any of the golden age horror classics. Wells goes into a secret passageway, where he has a laboratory set up. He turns on some machines and removes his glove and moulds some goop that he repeats over the soundtrack as, "synthetic flesh" and creates a new hand, monstrous and hideous. Than he proceedes to construct a new face over his own head and creates something just as horrible. He rises from his seat, seeming to have enlarged, one of the most terrifying creations of 1930s cinema, courtesy of Max Factor makeup. Taking the place of Xavier's butler, he descends upon Joanne, who is acting the part of a victim. He reveals himself to the hepless doctors and cries out, in one of my favorite twisted movies lines, "Synthetic flesh! I shall live forever in the history of science!"
Lucky for Joanne, Lee Tracy comes to the rescue, posing as a dummy(ha) and jumps the killer, getting in a scuffle, before setting him afire and tossing him through a window, where he falls to his death. The case is solved and Lee and Joanne are engaged, fading out on Lee handbuzzing Joanne's bottom. Good one, dude.

Doctor X is something of a dated curio-piece, but is still very entertaining and engaging, thanks to a capable cast of characters and moody direction by one of Hollywood's best. The technicolor process utilized is decidely creepy, enhancing every scene ten fold. The green and red hues are eerie and appropiate to the film, creating almost a colorized form of German expressionism. It was seldom utilized, but proved that color if used properly could get the same desired effect as black and white. The following year's Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933) was also as effective, utlizing this process. The sets are an asset as well, the mansion in particular, a wonderful example of Hollywood gothic. It's unfortunate that for many years, this was see largely in a black and white format, because the impact was lessened to a great extent. This is especially true in the "synthetic flesh" scene with Preston Foster, where all the faded colors combined for a decidely unhealthy look.

Lionel Atwill adds sardonic black humor to the title role, perhaps being the screen's greatest portrayer of mad scientists. This is one of his best roles and he plays the part of suspect with touches of menace and mystery, quite effectively. Fay Wray never looked as lovely here, in technicolor, in a more multi-dimensional role than was generally afforded her in other genre efforts, including King Kong(1933). Her character is genuinely sympathetic and engaging and we are really afraid for her when Preston Foster goes in to kill her, and perhaps worse! Lee Tracy tries to make something of the  stock reporter character that was so popular at the time, but comes across as boorish and annoying. His humor dosen't fit the natural black humor of the script, nor the playfullness of the rest of the cast. He could be an effective actor, but this is far from one of his best roles and he serves as something of a debit to the enjoyability of the picture, being placed in the hero role. Preston Foster had a long career as a character actor, playing seemingly everything and his Dr. Wells is one of the great psychotics of all time. His twisted painful expressions when undergoing his synthetic flesh experiment, conjures up disturbing images of both ectasy and pain. The repeated phrase of "synthetic flesh" is chilling and was particularly unnerving when viewing this early one morning as a child! He earns horror film immortality with this role and that classic scene.

Doctor X is not one of the finest horror films of this very rich and rewarding decade in screen horror, but it is one of the most inventive and disturbing. The technicolor photography is unique and there are a few truly memorable and frightening scenes to reccomend it, including what I consider to be, the decade's best scare scene. For that alone, this film deserves some reccomendation and should be seen by the horror buffs who read this blog. By the way, the 1939 film, The Return of Doctor X, is not a sequel to this film, but does feature Humphrey Bogart in his only horror role! It dosen't quite make the blood curl like this one does.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Story You'll Never Forget

They Won't Forget(1937)
Director: Mervyn Leroy
Cast: Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson, Edward Norris

This is a film guaranteed to piss a few people off. It's a horror story of a different sort, than is usually found on this blog. This film is about the horror of corruption, greed and prejudice. Despite the title, this film has been forgotten by far too many people and for no earthly reason, because it's a fantastic drama that still packs a punch after nearly 80 years.

The film begins with the annual Confederacy memorial day in a small southern town. Only a few veterans are left and they contemplate whether or not people will remember what they fought for. What at first appears to be an oddly nostalgic look back at the old south, becomes something much more compex when a beautiful young woman is found murdered and a northern teacher, Robert Hale(Edward Norris) is put on trial. Overly ambitious District Attorney, Andy Griffin(Claude Rains, and yes I laughed at his screen character's name, too) is trying to find a man to convict to get him into the governor's seat. With the aid of some weasly newspaper men, the trial is held and Hale is convicted, despite the best efforts of his northern lawyer, Michael Cleason(Otto Kruger), who has to fight blind prejudice and corruption as jury members are threatened and propaganda is spread. I often give a ful synopsis in my reviews, but I just can't give away the ending of this film. It's such an abrupt and painful one, that it's lesson should be experienced rather than read in a critic's blog. It's that powerful and as I began this review, guaranteed to incite the viewer and likely, piss him/her off.

The film's story is based on the murder trial of Leo M. Frank in 1915, who was convicted of murdering a 13 year old girl. He was a northerner as well, and was also a jew, which raised more prejudice than even his Northern background.
They Won't Forget is a legitimately great film and one of the least analyzed of the golden age. There's not many reviews out there for this one, even though the venerable Leonard Maltin awarded this a four star review in his essential movie guide. One would assume such praise would be noticed, but alas, that has not been the case. Mervyn Leroy was one of the most capable directors of the time and handles the duties well, combining suspense and tension to a near fever pitch throughout. He directs the film much like he did the earlier and equally powerful, I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang(1932). It's a gritty, uncompromising picture and unlike most made at the time. The film is fast-paced and never falters for a moment as the film builds to it's shocking and unexpected conclusion. The cast are all uniformly excellent and quite vivid in their portrayals. Rains is always excellent in anything he appears in, but this has to be one of his finest roles. He's a much more vile character than even the character portrayed in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939), which initially I thought this might have been a warm-up for. His commanding court room speeches are powerful and frightening, reminding one of how one speaker can warp and influence so many. The current threat of nazi Germany certainly came to mind when I viewed this character's ruthless rise to power. Edward Norris was always an underrated talent. He always portrays likeable and engaging characters and you really sympathize for his plight as the town closes in around him and the old blood still bristles at the North. His ultimate fate is tragic and difficult to watch. Gloria Dickson is effective as the wife of Norris, defending him to the end and perhaps giving the most powerful scene at film's conclusion, in her confrontation with Rains and her slamming of his greedy, corrupt ways. There's a wealth of character actors here, including Elisha Cook Jr., Allyn Joslyn and Kruger, all who are excellent. Special notice must go to the murder victim, portrayed by a young and incredibly sexy, Lana Turner. She certainly stood out in a tight sweater, bouncing around as she strolled down the street and I wondered who this babe was? When I saw the credits, I was very surprised to see it was Turner, who I didn't recognize with brunette hair. This was her first film role, being discovered only a month before production.

It's sad to say that many of the themes present in this film, still linger today as prejudice and racial tension are present. Despite, nearly 150 years between us and the close of the Civil War, the tensions still remain, however small and even after all these decades, the film's message is still as powerful as it was upon release. Sadly, it's only available through and that's a shame as this film should be more available to the consumer. Still, I guess we should be glad it's available at all! Hopefully, this film will be seen and such lessons can be learned from. Seek out this film and give it a view. They Won't Forget and neither will you.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Lord Our God Is A Jealous God

The Walking Dead(1936)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn, Ricardo Cortez

One of the most underrated and unique horror films of the golden age has to be The Walking Dead from 1936. Released on the tail end of the first wave of golden age chillers, the film works like a cross between a Warners gangster film and a Universal horror. Warners Bros horror films were always different than the more gothic ones made at Universal, featurning instead, contemporary locales and snappy dialogue to offset the terror. Michael Curtiz had already made two horror films with the technicolor duo of Doctor X(1932)  and Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933), both at the same studio. Karloff was a huge draw and Warners signed him on to a five picture contract, beginning with this film. It's one of the actor's most poignant and powerful pictures and contains one of his finest performances in an era where he seemed to be able to deliver nothing but something that was indelible.

(Bizarre advertisement above. For some reason, Henry Hall's Werewolf of London(1935) is used instead of Boris Karloff!)

The story revolves around a group of gangsters who run a town and want a judge out of the way. Lead gangster, Nolan(Ricardo Cortez) sets up a recently released prisoner, John Ellman(Boris Karloff) who was sent up by the judge, to take the fall. The gangsters set it up that the judges body ends up in the back of Ellman's car, but a couple witness it, Nancy and Jimmy(Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull), but they remain quiet for fear of they're lives. Ellman is found guilty, his lawyer is Nolan, the very crook who sent him up! Ellman is placed on death row, despite many pleas for release. At the last moment, Nancy and Jimmy go for help and confess, but Ellman is sent to the electric chair. The young couple work for a brilliant scientist, Dr. Evan Beaumont(Edmund Gwenn) and he orders the body brought to his laboratory, where he is revived, but without a memory of who he is. Slowly, Ellman regains memories and can play the piano even, for he was a musician before. He reacts violenty when seeing Nolan and when questioned, he does not know why he regards him as an enemy. In a brilliantly staged sequence, a concert is held at Beaumont's house, where Ellman performs, staring down the men who framed him as he plays on his piano. They arrange a hit on him, but Ellman confronts the would be hitman and scares the gangster into shooting himself. Soon, all the gangsters fall one by one, by their own hand, as Ellman appears to have the very spectre of death walking beside him. Nolan and Warners Bros. heavy, Barton Maclane, the oen with the perpetual scowl, go and find Ellman at a cemetary on a rainy evening and gun him down. The doctor, Jim and Nancy and District Attorney Werner(Henry O' Neill) arrive and in one of the most moving endings in a horror film, Karloff's dying Ellman atempst to explain what death is to Beaumont, only able to get out one word, "peace." Beaumont, tearful and beaten, looks out upon the rain soaked cemetary and decrees, "the Lord our God, is a jealous god."

For years this film was unavailable for most to see, cropping up on TCM once in a blue moon, and at Halloween time. I had a bootleg for years, but happily this classic appeared on a Warners DVD recently as part of a Karloff and Lugosi collection. It's the highlight of the package, and one of the most criminally underseen of horror movies, even now. The premise is just cool sounding for the film buff: Warners gangsters in a Boris Karloff film and that should have been enough to sell it to aficionados. Combine that with an excellent supporting cast and one of the greatest Hollywood directors of all time and you have what should be, a much more recognized work. Several historians rank this as one of the finest horror films of the period and it is. Like most Warners films, the picture has a brisk pace, running scarcely over an hour and never wasting a single frame. Curtiz, obviously from the school of expressionism, shoots this like a gangster variation on Frankenstein with bizarre angles and his ever present shadows, that pre-figured the dark world of film noir. His camera is ever mobile, particularly in the creation sequence, which has to be one of the half dozen best on film. Curtiz dabbled in virtually every genre, and always provided fine work, but it's a pity he didn't return to the genre more often, because he appeared to be truly at ease within it.

The cast are all excellent, peppered with many familiar faces from other Warner Bros classics. Maclane is the standout as the most brutal of the gangsters in his typical tough no-nonsense fashion and it's fun seeing Joe Sawyer, a regular in scores of tough guy and character parts as the ill-fated hitman, "Trigger." Ricardo Cortez, the screen's first Sam Spade in the effective 1931 production of The Maltese Falcon(which also had Dwight Frye!) makes for one of the slimiest gangsters that Warners could produce and that's saying something! His lack of a consience and machiavellian schemes make him a perfect villain for us to hiss and his ironic death, along with Maclane, electrocution after skidding off the road into a power line is satisfying. The young couple. despite the last minute rush to save Ellman probably making them appearing cowardly, are actually refreshingly likeable and human. Churchill never even screams at the sight of the Karloff character, instead weeping when he is shot and dying and that makes the ending that much more poignant, for hsi character is far from a monster, like so many in his rogue's gallery of performances. Edmund Gwenn is perfect as always, showing both dedication to his work, but also compassion that makes him into something more than the typical mad scientist. He really wants to aid humanity and we root for him, even though his constant badgering to Karloff's character about the secrets of death may appear unsympathetic, the scientist in him makes them understandable and we never regard him as being anything less than human.

Karloff appears at times like his Frankenstein Monster, even sporting a makeup that sort of resembles that character, but it does not detract from his portrayal. His John Ellman is an avenging angel, driven by a greater force, as alluded to, possibly death itself. Never is he seen, outside of the guilty and shameful gangsters, as anything other than the benovolent character he is. Karloff's underplaying of the role adds immeasurably to the film's impact and that unforgettable finale. His eyes do so mcuh of the work, whether they are staring down into the souls of the men who condemned and framed him or looking up to the heavens on his death bed, they are the driving force behind his characterization. Boris would have many fine characterizations in this rich period of cinema, but his John Ellman is oen of his most challenging and poignant.

The Walking Dead may appear to be a mere hodge podge of two disparate genres, but it's more than that. It's an entertaining and powerful film that may stand as one of the most effective studies on our fears and questions about death. Ray Bradbury once stated that Boris Karloff's main purpose in life, may have been to illustrate that fear and fascination to his world wide audience, and certainly in the case of this film that couldn't be a truer statement. It's a subtle and unique film, quite unlike many other genre efforts that would follow. I'm certain that if remade today, Karloff's character would merely hack and stab his victims in bloody fashion, for it's doubtful that today's Hollywood has any of the understanding of nuance and subtleties that these filmmakers had. I urge all classic film fans to seek this one out, especially for those who have a taste for the genre of the fantastic. It's one of the true "lost" classics of the golden age, proving not just what a truly brilliant actor was, but how how intensely moving a genre, horror can actually be.